Chick-fil-A has 90 days to come up with a plan to permanently eliminate the traffic jams caused by its busy drive-thru or else face a public nuisance declaration that could shut down the drive-thru for good.
That was the unanimous decision handed down by the Santa Barbara City Council this Tuesday during a four-hour quasi-judicial hearing in which Chick-fil-A representatives and the local franchise owner pleaded their case. They promised solutions were within reach to solve the problem of cars backing onto State Street, including widening the restaurant’s driveway apron, reconfiguring its drive-thru lanes and parking spaces, and hiring private security.
“We sincerely regret that the traffic situation has come to this point,” said franchisee Travis Collins, a former director of the fast food chain’s Downey location who moved to Santa Barbara in 2019. “We want to work with the city in good faith to resolve it once and for all,” Collins went on, touting not only the 100-plus jobs the business provides and the 1,500 to 2,500 customers it serves every day but also its partnerships with Westmont College, Cottage Health, and other local organizations. “Our commitment to the community is so, so much more than providing fresh, hot chicken sandwiches,” he said.
During his presentation to the council, traffic engineer Derrick Bailey noted the backups, which frequently block access to nearby businesses, trap MTD buses, and create general havoc along one of the city’s main arterial routes, started occurring soon after Chick-fil-A opened in 2013. “The conditions have existed for nearly a decade,” he explained.
In addition to the countless near-misses brought on by sudden stops and erratic maneuvering at the location, Police Chief Barney Melekian said 24 accidents have occurred along the 3700 block of State Street in the last three years alone, with 11 collisions taking place directly at or in front of Chick-fil-A.
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Though the restaurant has known all along its drive-thru was a serious safety issue, officials argued, it was only after the city threatened a month ago to slap it with a public nuisance label did the company take any real action. “Accountability will produce results,” intoned Assistant City Attorney Dan Hentschke as he urged the council to consider its next steps. “People do not have to die because of a traffic accident before you can declare a nuisance,” he said.
Bailey acknowledged that the interim measures Chick-fil-A has adopted in the last month — adding a third drive-thru lane and stationing a security guard at the entrance to wave motorists along if the wait line gets too long — are producing positive results. The backups are shorter and less frequent. But they haven’t been eliminated, Bailey said. In fact, while monitoring a traffic camera feed in his office during the council hearing, he watched as yet another formed. Company representatives estimate 70 percent of their customers use the drive-thru with the remaining parking and eating inside.
Joseph Billings, a lawyer representing the site’s two property owners — the Thompson Family Limited Partnership and the McCollum Family Trust — said eliminating the drive-thru would set “a dangerous precedent that the city can punish local property owners for having a commercially successful business.” Chick-fil-A attorney Beth Collins (no relation to franchisee Travis Collins) pointed out that traffic jams frequently occur at Santa Barbara schools, farmers’ markets, and bus stops, yet those sources are not targeted as nuisances.
It was Councilmember Eric Friedman who ultimately made the motion to give Chick-fil-A 90 days to work with city staff to create a menu of remedies. In the meantime, the City Attorney’s Office will draft a public nuisance resolution that the council can adopt if no plan is agreed upon or proven to work.
“It is important to understand that we are trying to cure, not punish,” said Mayor Randy Rowse. “We owe it to the city, as well as everybody, for this time period to really try to find some solutions,” he said.
The council will revisit the issue at its June 7 meeting.