Have it YOur Way. Just Get Out of the Car FIrst
Odd how the fast food joint has become emblematic of what's wrong with the modern world. The recent bombing of a McDonalds in Brittany was widely interpreted as nothing less than a shot across the bow of cultural globalization. Here on our golden shores, discussions about the merits of quick service restaurants are more measured, but the burger and burrito huts can cause high anxiety.
Particularly loathed by many are drive-through facilities. These car-friendly land uses have been scoffed at for years by students of the urban form. After all, when it comes to bleating speakers, idling vehicles belching exhaust, and multiple curb cuts, what's to like? Drive-throughs have been banned in a handful of California's municipalities for many years. Now, a new generation of towns — perhaps enthusiastic about neo-traditional and smart growth concepts — have brought drive-through lanes under new scrutiny. And the fast-food industry is armed and ready.
In 1999, the battle of the drive-through ended up in the state Legislature, which argued over the merits of SB 1200. The bill, introduced by Senator Charles Poochigian (R-Fresno), attempted to override local government's land use control of drive-through facilities. As proposed by the bill, cities could not prohibit drive-through facilities without the establishment of elaborate and extensive findings. Supported by the California Restaurant Association, the bill's goodwill theme was access rights for the disabled. A much watered-down version of the bill passed in September 1999. The new law simply requires that local agencies specifically notify "blind, the aged, and disabled communities" regarding hearings on permits for drive-throughs. One has to wonder how interested blind people could be in drive-throughs.
Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo have long disallowed drive-through facilities – not only for restaurants, but for banks and all other services. Santa Barbara's ban dates to 1979, and San Luis Obispo's to 1982. Probably not coincidentally, both burgs are known for both the quality and quantity of their pedestrian life. Glen Matteson, a San Luis Obispo city planner, concedes that the argument for the disabled has some merits. He acknowledges that complaints about the lack of drive-through access to fast food restaurants are heard from time to time in his bucolic city, and many complaints are in fact from disabled people.
But even though the fast food lifestyle is thwarted in his town, Matteson believes the overall benefits to community remain in place. "Though the term neo-traditional was not yet in use when we passed the ordinance, the sentiment that minimizing automobile access would be an improvement to pedestrian life has seemed to prove true," he says.
Like San Luis Obispo, the City of Santa Barbara also uses an ordinance to force hungry families to get out of their mini vans to purchase burgers and fries. Both cities originally used the onus of air pollution to create the legal nexus for the ban. However, using the air pollution approach is not advisable these days.
The County of Santa Barbara lost its attempt to use air quality as the reason for denying a drive-through use permit for the popular In-N-Out chain in 1994. In that county, the applicant must demonstrate that the air quality impacts of a project with a drive-through would be lesser than a project without a drive-through to gain a permit. And that is exactly what the purveyor of Double-Doubles proceeded to do. Armed with a CRA-commissioned study (funded by In-N-Out, Carl's Jr., and Burger King) demonstrating that cars idling in drive through lanes for 15 minutes or less are 25% to 40% less polluting than cars that pull into the parking lot, stop, restart and leave a short time later, In-N-Out prevailed in its appeal for a drive-through.
Last year, Marin County had more success with a conditional use permit process. Based on careful site review for circulation and parking issues, combined with neighborhood character review and community input, a drive-through for In-N-Out was rejected in the Mill Valley shopping center. According to Tom Lai, principal planner for Marin County, the finding for denial — which went all the way to the Board of Supervisors on appeal — was based in the fact that the site was within a "neighborhood-oriented" center, and a drive-through would endanger pedestrians and harm the character. In-N-Out proceeded with building the restaurant sans drive-through. Of the chain's 143 stores, it is one of only two without a car queue lane.
As it stands today, land use authority over drive-through lanes remains with local agencies. Outright bans are still legal. Conditional use permit restrictions are upon what most jurisdictions rely. And Michael Prosio, the Restaurant Association's deputy director of government affairs, said the CUP approach is what its members prefer.
"Blanket bans on drive-throughs really don't respond to the specifics of particular neighborhoods, and may preclude what some customers really want. We prefer to be allowed to address site design on case-by-case basis," Prosio said.
In other words, the burger barons want the chance to drive their point home.
Stephen Svete, AICP, is a principal in the Ventura-based consulting firm of Rincon Consultants, Inc.