Thursday, September 25, 2014

Drive Through Government

Someone on Facebook asked the reason for a zoning change request for the property on West Campbell Rd where Nikki's restaurant used to be. Two people answered, saying a multi-tenant building is planned, to be occupied by Starbucks and Pei Wei.

I asked why a zoning change request was needed. What's the big deal? One restaurant is being replaced by another (or by two in one multi-tenant building).

After the jump, the answer.

Two people answered me, including Mayor Laura Maczka, who said, "They [Starbucks] have to get a zoning change because there's a drive through. Richardson has an ordinance that any restaurant wanting a drive-through has to come in with a special use permit. That's also why Pollo Tropical had to come before the council last week."

Confession: I knew the answer when I asked the question. I was really looking to see if anyone else wondered, like I did, what's the big deal about drive-throughs? Why do we have an ordinance prohibiting drive throughs if virtually every fast food restaurant wants one and virtually every request for a special use permit for one is granted? We ought to prohibit by ordinance that which we are trying to prohibit and it's clearly not drive-throughs.

If there are traffic considerations involved (and there are) then those considerations ought to be in the ordinance. Maybe it's just too darn complicated to write it all down in an ordinance. I don't accept that, by the way. It's no more complicated than running electricity, water and gas to and through the building. There are plenty of standards and codes for those. We don't require the city council to review the electrical plans and issue a special use permit for a business to have, say, electricity. The council members have no expertise in the subject. Why do we need them to review drive-through plans? They are not professional traffic engineers either. We shouldn't go to them to make technical decisions about the traffic impact of a drive-through restaurant.

All we really need, and should have, is an ordinance saying that a developer needs to get the experts in the city traffic department to sign off that the plans adequately address traffic issues. If, because of zoning enablement statutes or something that I'm not expert in, a special use permit is still required by state law and only the city council can grant that, then at least get it done through the consent agenda (once sign-off by the professionals in the traffic department is obtained). Ordinances that encourage politicians to think they are traffic experts just open our city up to government by whim. Which is what it looks like every time seven elected politicians pore over design drawings asking whether this or that driveway might be just a little too tight a turn for, say, a large pickup truck.

</high horse>


mccalpin said...

I can't be sure, but my guess as to why drive-throughs require an special permit is because of you, the voter. (Curiously, the official term in Richardson is "special permit", even though most people and even half the Council find it very hard NOT to say "special use permit"),

Yep, I have attended zoning cases where it was clear that the big objection to the drive-through was not traffic, but noise.

As you can imagine, a drive-through late at night across the street or alley from a row of residential structures can cause a lot of annoying noise. Thus, homeowners feel that they need to have an opportunity to object (loudly) if someone wants to put in a drive-through right next to their neighborhood.

If SPs were not required for drive-throughs, and if the owner of the land had the zoning where he/she could put in a Starbucks or burger joint or whatever by right, then there would never be an opportunity for homeowners to scream about the noise or the traffic or the hours or whatever.

Of course, in places like the old Nikki's where the nearest house is several hundred yards away, the SP is a no-brainer...but put it closer to someone's neighborhood, and the torches and pitchforks will come out.

So can you write an ordinance that allows city staff to administratively authorize drive-throughs so long as it doesn't create too much noise for concerned homeowners (whatever that is)? Yeah, the Councilmembers aren't traffic engineers...but they do recognize angry voters objecting to an obnoxious use (yes, while I use drive-throughs, I wouldn't want to put one next to anyone's house, either)...


Mark Steger said...

If you put *anything* next to anyone's house, you risk angry homeowner opposition. Why single out drive-throughs for needing special permits in all cases, even when they aren't anywhere near residential neighborhoods?

mccalpin said...

My guess is that many of these SPs are sort of "after the fact". That is, the homeowners know that the zoning next door is retail or commercial or whatever, but after a while, someone wants to come in and convert the use, adding a drive-through on top of the original business use...which (and we both agree, I think) can be an obnoxious use.

As for "Why single out drive-throughs for needing special permits in all cases, even when they aren't anywhere near residential neighborhoods?"...if you can define in an ordinance what "near" means in this case such that the staff can intuit what the homeowners might think, then go for it.

Unfortunately, the only sure test to see if anyone cares is to call a public hearing and see if anyone notices. I agree that a lot of such cases, far from residential uses, are no-brainers...but until we have a way to flawlessly codify what "far" means, I suspect that neighborhood associations around the city would generally agree to keep the SPs around for could raise it as a campaign issue next spring to see if there are people that agree with you that SPs in this case are a waste of time and money...(I'm betting you won't get too far with this)...


Mark Steger said...

If the concern is over homeowner sensibilities, then why not require special permits for *any* development/redevelopment on properties next to residential neighborhoods?

I'm not interested in dreaming up issues for an electoral campaign, but neighborhood advocacy might be a fertile stance for someone to run on. As for me, I'm interested in logical, consistent, sensible governance. And our city government seems to be obsessed about drive throughs to the neglect of many more significant land use issues.

mccalpin said...

It seems that we are conflating several different scenarios. If I buy a house next to a commercial use, it seems to me that I shouldn't complain when someone uses their inherent property rights to put a commercial use on that property. (as in, I move next to Love Field and then exclaim, "Oh, my, who knew that airports were so noisy!")

If, on the other hand, the land next door is zoned to a lighter use and the owner wants to convert it to commercial, then I as a resident should rightfully have a say - and I do, because the rezoning case will involve a public hearing.

In this case (I don't know how consistent this is), the SP is for a noxious use, i.e., drive-through , automotive, alcohol-related (that may be zoning rather than SP), and so on. Whenever there is a noxious use, the neighbors are invited to comment in one way or another.

Rather than arguing that the SP should not be required here, perhaps you would be better off identifying other places where an SP should be required because rezoning isn't...but note that you can't interfere with the inherent property rights of a landowner who already has the ability to do commercial or retail or whatever by right - that would involve the city in endless lawsuits that we would lose...