PARKSLEY, Va. (news agencies) — A married couple who fled Haiti for Virginia achieved their American dream when they opened a variety market on the Eastern Shore, selling hard-to-find spices, sodas and rice to the region’s growing Haitian community.
When they added a Haitian food truck, people drove from an hour away for freshly cooked oxtail, fried plantains and marinated pork.
But Clemene Bastien and Theslet Benoir are now suing the town of Parksley, alleging that it forced their food truck to close. The couple also say a town council member cut the mobile kitchen’s water line and screamed, “Go back to your own country!”
“When we first opened, there were a lot of people” ordering food, Bastien said, speaking through an interpreter. “And the day after, there were a lot of people. And then … they started harassing us.”
A federal lawsuit claims the town passed a food truck ban that targeted the couple, then threatened them with fines and imprisonment when they raised concerns. They’re being represented by the Institute for Justice, a law firm that described a “string of abuses” in the historic railroad town of about 800 people.
“If Theslet and Clemene were not of Haitian descent, Parksley’s town government would not have engaged in this abusive conduct,” the lawsuit states.
The town council is pushing back through a law firm it hired, Pender & Coward, which said its own investigation found many allegations “simply not true.”
The couple failed to apply for a conditional use permit and chose to sue instead, the law firm countered. It said the council member cut an illegal sewage pipe — not a water line — after the food truck dumped grease into Parksley’s sewage system, causing damage.
The council member had authority to do so as a public works department representative, the law firm said.
“We expect to prevail once the evidence is presented,” attorneys Anne Lahren and Richard Matthews said.
Conflicts between local governments and food trucks have played out in the U.S. for decades, often pitting the aspirations of entrepreneurial immigrants against the concerns of local officials and restaurants. Tensions can spark debates about land use, food safety and food truck owners’ rights in underserved communities.
The Parksley dispute is unfolding on a narrow peninsula of farmland and coastline between the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, where the population is majority white but growing increasingly diverse.
Black and Hispanic migrant workers from Florida, Haiti and Latin America began picking fruits and vegetables in the 1950s. Many people from Haiti and elsewhere in Latin America now work in the coops and slaughterhouses of the expanding poultry industry, which extends north into Maryland and Delaware.
Several community members said the lawsuit unfairly maligns a town that has integrated recent immigrants into its 0.625 square miles (1.62 square kilometers).
Parksley has two Caribbean markets, a Haitian church and a Latin American restaurant, all of which sit near the hardware store, flower shop and iconic five & dime.
Jeff Parks, who serves on the Accomack County Board of Supervisors, said the town “has welcomed any business which operates within the rules.”
Once a transportation hub for trains and trucks that hauled away grains and produce, Parksley has lost two grocery stores, a bank and a garment factory in recent decades. Some shops on the town square sit empty.
“It’s disheartening to see a town that is so open to everyone and welcoming new businesses into its storefronts to be mischaracterized,” Parks said. “We have multiple Haitian businesses, so it wouldn’t make sense that this one was being targeted.”
Bastien and Benoir said they were singled out.
“We did everything we’re supposed to do,” Bastien said.