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By Collin Breaux | Twitter: @collin_breaux
Featured photo: Collin Breaux
Amid public outcry, the San Juan Capistrano City Council decided by a split vote to approve staff recommendations for discretionary and conditional-use permits for an In-N-Out Burger drive-through restaurant on Del Obispo Street, on the condition that the company tweak design details for the project based on council feedback.
The approval effectively means In-N-Out can open a new restaurant at the current downtown Marie Callender’s site. The current building will be demolished, and a new one will be built in its place. The city’s Planning Commission, Cultural Heritage Committee, and Design Review Committee all recommended the project be denied for various reasons, including issues with proposed landscaping details.
The vote at the special council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 8, was 3-2. Councilmembers Troy Bourne and Sergio Farias, and Mayor Pro Tem Howard Hart, voted yes. Mayor Derek Reeve and Councilmember John Taylor voted no. The city decided to hold a special meeting just for discussion on the project due to the expected high level of public comment.
A traffic analysis report done on the project before the vote—based on observations made at current In-N-Out locations in Rancho Mission Viejo and Laguna Niguel—said there would be not be significant traffic impact from the project, a finding some residents against the project disagreed with due to their concerns that the new restaurant will worsen traffic gridlock on Del Obispo Street. Councilmembers who voted in favor of the project said it would be unethical to deny the new restaurant after going through the study and that they trusted the data.
Bourne emphasized that the issue was one of property rights, as he has done in the past. The site of the proposed restaurant, as well as other properties along Del Obispo Street, are owned by the Stroscher family, which has long-established roots in the area.
“We’ve received many emails that said, ‘Guys, just keep Marie Callender’s. We love it.’ There’s some chuckles out here, but I want you to appreciate that those emails aren’t coming in jest,” Bourne said. “There is a little bit of a misunderstanding throughout the city of what the City Council controls and what they don’t control. We do not control users. We don’t get to decide whether In-N-Out Burger can come here—which is a highly successful restaurant chain—or another restaurant chain that might be less successful and, therefore, generate less traffic.”
The project came before the council for approval, because the drive-through component required discretionary and conditional-use permits. A mere sit-down restaurant, or other business with no drive-through lane, could have opened without council purview.
Taylor, who has lived in the downtown area for 31 years and represents the district, said he is “very aware” of the traffic problems that residents endure every day. Taylor voted against doing the traffic study in October 2020.
“It’s frightening how fast cars come off that area of the freeway. They just want to come home,” Taylor said. “Given what I’ve heard over the year and the tremendous amount of emails, it’s no reflection on this company. It’s a fantastic company. It’s well-run. I just see that it does not fit the vision that I have for our downtown. It’s been a long process, and I’m sure a lot of money, but I will continue to be a no vote on this.”
Numerous residents at the meeting spoke against the project due to various concerns, including those related to traffic. Some against the new Del Obispo restaurant said they were not necessarily opposed to In-N-Out itself and actually liked the company and food, but didn’t feel the downtown location was a good fit.
“We suffer severe gridlock trying to get through town, particularly in that location. And don’t forget the fire station is just there. How is it going to be impacted?” said Rosa Hribar, who has lived in town since 1966 and previously spoken against the project. “Number two (concern), pollution. Carbon monoxide emissions from all the cars going through the drive-through, as well as the gridlocked cars on the road, will affect all of us.”
Former Councilmember Laura Freese said “noxious fumes” from the restaurant traffic could negatively impact nearby historic buildings.
“The second thing that really concerns me is the right-turn-only lane when you come out of that location. The Historical Town Center Master Plan identified Ortega (Highway) and Camino Capistrano to be a route for people who want to experience the historic downtown,” Freese said. “Through traffic was to go on Del Obispo, but the plan of the In-N-Out takes it from Del Obispo to Camino Capistrano and back to Ortega, so all those three major streets will be highly impacted by the 1,500 cars. I just don’t think that’s acceptable.”
City Manager Ben Siegel said he spoke to the Orange County Fire Authority division chief, who did not express concern with the traffic study. Some councilmembers who voted for the project said traffic was already an issue before this project and is a problem they can’t fix.
“One of the things I learned from one of my colleagues was that these are self-metering enterprises. Drive-through restaurants admit a car every 35 to 40 seconds,” Hart said. “A car drives up to the window, takes 35 to 40 seconds on average to pay their money, collect their fries and a ‘Double-Double’, and then they go back on the road. It’s not as if you have 28 cars waiting to get back onto Del Obispo.”
Cassie Ruiz, the development manager for In-N-Out and project applicant on behalf of the company, said the application does not require any variances or code changes and that the company has not been dismissive of feedback from the city’s advisory boards.
“(Eliminating the drive-through lane) is not an option here. Less than 2% of all of our In-N-Out Burger restaurants do not have drive-through service. In 74 years, we’ve opened just a handful of stores that do not offer this,” Ruiz said. “Especially now, in a post-COVID world, omitting our drive-through service for our restaurant is not a possibility.”
Property owner Andrew Stroscher said every city staff report has recommended approval and every third-party report has been “glowing.”
“We have to make sure this project works right and doesn’t maladaptively affect the community,” Stroscher said.
Conditions of the approval include a request from Bourne for the In-N-Out logo design on the building be made more “classy” and for the white background on the design to be less luminous.