By Gaige Davila
A local restaurant owner attempting to transfer his former brick-and-mortar business to a food trailer is in limbo, pending a lawsuit against the City of South Padre Island.
Scott Bovee, owner of Porky’s Pit, put the barbecue restaurant on wheels when their store closed on August 30 after the building they leased was purchased. But the City of South Padre Island, Bovee said, has put the brakes on their now-parked food trailer, saying they cannot issue him a permit for his food truck until a pending lawsuit is resolved.
“I feel like the city is giving Porky’s Pit the Heisman pose,” Bovee told the PRESS in a phone call.
The lawsuit is an ongoing litigation between the owners of the SurfVive food truck, based on South Padre Island, and the owners of Chile De Árbol, based in Brownsville, against the City of South Padre Island, with the plaintiffs alleging the city is violating the Texas Constitution. Specifically, the food truck businesses say the city is engaging in “economic protectionism.” The lawsuit was filed on Feb. 28, 2019.
“Using government power to pass laws that serve no purpose other than to protect politically-connected insiders from competition is unconstitutional,” Arif Panju, managing attorney for the Institute for Justice law firm who is representing the food truck owners, told the PRESS.
On Sept. 22, Panju submitted a motion for summary judgement to the 138th District Court of Cameron County, presided by Judge Arturo C. Nelson.
The lawsuit alleges that the city’s food truck ordinances, which include capping the available food truck permits at 12 and issuing permits only if a local restaurant owner approves and signs off on their application, were written to protect local restaurant owners from competition.
These ordinances were added after South Padre Island’s city council voted to “have a local group of restaurateurs get together and come up with ideas on modifying the proposed ordinance and bring it back to City Council for discussion and action,” according to minutes from an Aug. 5, 2015 agenda item. The group of local restaurant owners was designated as the Food Truck Planning Committee.
The lawsuit quotes South Padre Island restaurant owners in the Food Truck Planning Committee who were worried that issuing too many food truck permits would hurt their businesses. The City of South Padre Island, when asked for comment, told the PRESS to contact their law firm, Denton Navarro Rocha Bernal & Zech, P.C. The PRESS is awaiting comment from Denton Navarro Rocha Bernal & Zech, P.C.
Porky’s Pig was also affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and hopes to open his food trailer soon to get back in business.
“We were applying for PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans, we were trying to find ways to pay all of our employees, we had to shut the restaurant for seven weeks,” Bovee said.
Porky’s Pit did receive a PPP loan, helping ease their way through the in-room dining restrictions imposed by the county and state. But as restrictions tightened and loosened throughout the year, business slowed down. The food truck, even before COVID-19’s presence in the area, was Bovee’s answer to a soon-to-be-spaceless business.
Finding a restaurant space on the Island was too expensive, Bovee said, and finding another space in Port Isabel was too difficult. So before the food truck was built, Bovee was already inquiring for a food truck permit, in February. At that time, 5 of the 12 food truck permits were available, and the city told Bovee he was the next to receive one, he said.
The city then told Bovee he instead needed to find someone who would be willing to offer their permit to him. Bovee found a food truck owner willing to give up their operating permit, he said, and approached South Padre Island’s city council with a plan: to operate Porky’s Pit out of the parking lot of the Coral Reef Lounge, allowing the standalone bar to reopen with a food source nearby, according to TABC’s COVID-19 guidelines.
But the city didn’t move on the plan, Bovee said, saying they were waiting for Nelson’s ruling on the lawsuit.
“I get at least twenty to thirty calls a day or emails asking when is Porky’s Pit Barbecue going to reopen,” Bovee said. “I’m not going to tell them (anymore) that I’m waiting on a lawsuit.”
He continued, “It’s because of some very, very bad code of ordinance here in (South Padre Island) and they’ve done nothing to fix it.”
The case, as of press time, is pending ruling.
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