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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.

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comments (3)

  • The councils disregard for such dignitaries as the cultural heritage and planning commission is a disregard for those entities that know MORE than the sell out council members. It is NOT disrespectful to say NO that is your JOB! This is THE worst most detrimental impact to our historic town. The fact that In and Out does not care is more than disrespectful to the entire history of California! SHAME ON ALL OF YOU.

  • As a professional land use and enviro-analyst who has been visiting and driving through your city for over 50 years, with all due respect, property rights are NOT inalienable, inviolate or absolute. That’s a myth, repeating it doesn’t make it true..
    I think the Planning Commission got it right. One traffic study doesn’t guarantee success. It doesn’t appear that it was peer reviewed by an independent, disinterested, neutral 3rd party per my industry’s protocols. It’s pro forma.
    Public nuisance and public trust statutes are foundational legal principles that originated in England and were imported by us, woven into our laws. UC Davis law department has a great explanation online by Professor Albert C. Lin..
    In this case, the residents have rights, and if they feel that the cumulative impact of this and other high density development downtown to come later, will rob them, will interfere with their historical ability to navigate, enjoy the central business district of SJC without diminishment, then challenge the powers that be!
    Driving slowly but with the windows open downtown kinda defines SJC, doesn’t it?
    Degradation of air quality being only one of many aspects in play, litigation is an option.
    Howsabout noise from more honking horns, fender bender accidents in such a compressed zone?
    I live in Laguna, believe it or not, since we grew from 2 million visitors/year 20 years ago to 6+ million, our quality (in spite of being next to the ocean) has worsened considerably due to gridlock—-we’re now a year round destination resort, cars backed up constantly 1-2 miles north and south of City Hall, plus Laguna Canyon!
    Watch what you wish for—-build a beautiful downtown, advertise, and like a field of dreams, it becomes a nightmare, they WILL come and drive around in circles, robbing locals historical sense of community character. Once that’s gone, it won’t come back.
    It might come as a shock, but you cannot use your property in a way that diminishes, that lessens or jeopardizes your quality of life. Traffic circulation matters in such a keystone hub.
    Ever sold or bought a home or commercial space in California?
    California’s Real Estate Disclosure Act (circa 1985) is an extension or application of basic legal principles: ANYTHING that can/could affect the value or desirability must be disclosed. Hypothetically, and we all know that there’s no shortage, an entire cottage industry of attorneys who thrive on this concept, sellers of properties in proximity to downtown would probably be smart to admit: “Yeah, VERY convenient location but one itsy problem: Gridlock! Air quality is dicey. Why? Because our City Council believes that franchise commerce, chains trump, supersede, are superior to resident’s rights. So plan on walking or paying for a taxi, take Über or Lyft.”
    The fact is that once the more massive developments are built out, urban infill and revitalization over, residents might find themselves AVOIDING downtown and congestion, wanting to drive around it—-thus putting an additional burden on SJC’s other roads..
    Then it’s game over.
    If someone or group decides to appeal the City Council decision, it’ll be interesting to see who prevails.

  • Collin, I had a TYPO + additional thoughts:
    “It might come as a shock, but you cannot use your property in a way that diminishes, that lessens or jeopardizes your quality of life” should have ended with “that lessens or jeopardizes OTHER’S quality of life.
    And according to what I saw and heard online at the CC meeting, the franchise will only provide about $40,000 in revenue!
    $40,000 doesn’t seem like much compensation or mitigation for the potential adverse vehicular circulation impacts, air pollutant loading, etc., does it?
    A good alternative that meets access and egress criteria would be down near the car wash & Highway Patrol annex on Camino Capistrano. Great line of sight and accommodating circulation conditions.

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