By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Santa Rosa City Council approved a Chick-fil-A fast-food restaurant on Mendocino Avenue Tuesday, dismissing the planning commission’s concerns about the impacts a drive-thru might have on the neighborhood.
The council voted 5-2 to uphold the Atlanta-based company’s appeal of last month’s decision by the Planning Commission to deny a permit for a 4,400-square-foot restaurant on the site of a vacant former Burger King.
Councilman Scott Bartley said concerns expressed by planning commission members about greenhouse gas emissions from the drive-thru were overblown.
“As a politician, we probably produce more greenhouse gases here during one of our meetings than a drive thru does,” said Bartley, who voted in favor of the project.
But Councilwoman Susan Gorin said she was troubled that the company — which has more than 1,600 restaurants around the nation — refused to adapt the design of its restaurant to address local health and environmental concerns raised by neighbors.
“Here is a national restaurant trying to come into the community, and saying to Santa Rosa, ‘We don’t really care what your sensitivities about drive-thrus are. This is part of our business model,’” said Gorin, who voted against the appeal.
The debate and vote reflected stark differences between council members over how to strike a balance between being welcoming to businesses while also being sensitive to neighborhood concerns.
The project has stirred passions on both sides in part because the location is both commercial and residential. It is located on Mendocino Avenue, a busy commercial street, but the site also backs up to a residential area.
The Santa Rosa Neighborhood Association came out strongly against the project, claiming the drive-thru is inconsistent with the pedestrian and bicycle friendly values of the neighborhood.
Neighborhood resident Jayne Rosenberg said she didn’t believe drive-thrus belong in residential areas, which she said are “reserved for walking and bicycling and encouraging people to get out.”
Rosenberg said she hoped the restaurant, which she noted would back up to a pre-school, wouldn’t become as popular as the In-N-Out Burger off Steele Lane, which she called “gas fume city.”
Several council members voting for the project stressed it would create about 60 jobs, would be locally owned, and would remove the blighted vacant building.
Mayor Ernesto Olivares said there is no prohibition against drive-thrus in the city, only design guidelines that the company followed.
“Nothing evil or nothing bad is coming to Mendocino (Avenue) or Santa Rosa,” Olivares said. “What is happening is Santa Rosa is open for business.”
Olivares apologized to the company for “having to go through this extra step and extra expense” of an appeal to the council.
Vice Mayor John Sawyer stressed that the issue was one of fairness.
“I’m of the opinion that if a business jumps through the hoops that we place in front of them, they should have a reasonable expectation of success,” Sawyer said. “That’s the kind of reputation I want Santa Rosa to have.”
Supporters of the project warned that rejecting it would deepen the city’s reputation as a difficult place to do business.
Real estate agent Bobbi Beehler called it “ridiculous” to not allow a fast food restaurant with a drive-thru on the site of what used be a fast food restaurant with a drive-thru.
Others argued times have changed. Councilwoman Marsha Vas Dupre said one decision “is not going to cause the oceans to rage into our backyards,” but the council ought to consider the impact on global warming.
“Let us not just think that just because there was drive-thru there before that this a mandate to have another drive-thru. I don’t get that,” she said.
Councilman Gary Wysocky, who voted in favor of the project, wondered whether the city is serious about meeting the greenhouse gas reduction targets it pledged to in 2005.
“Is it just a feel good deal?” Wysocky asked.
Community Development Director Chuck Regalia responded that the city’s Climate Action Plan comes to the council for approval soon. The city will not meet its 2015 target, but could by 2020, even with drive-thrus.
“There are no measurable impacts from drive-thru restaurants,” he said.