News: CJ Exclusives

OC commissioners consider extending drive-thru ban

County imposed ban in some areas in attempt to reduce greenhouse gases; opponents cite hardships to elderly, disabled

Orange County Commissioner Barry Jacobs urges colleagues at a Sept. 12 meeting to maintain a ban on drive-up facilities in some parts of the county. (CJ photo by Dan Way)
Orange County Commissioner Barry Jacobs urges colleagues at a Sept. 12 meeting to maintain a ban on drive-up facilities in some parts of the county. (CJ photo by Dan Way)

Orange County Commissioner Barry Jacobs says the county has a duty to help Americans lose weight and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so he wants to preserve a drive-thru business window ban. Other commissioners say the prohibition is anti-business, and a lawyer for a national law firm fighting for economic liberty agrees.

“More than a third of Americans are obese, and nearly half of them including me are overweight,” Jacobs said at the county commissioners’ quarterly public hearing Sept. 12 at which land use plans for the Hillsborough Economic Development District were discussed. “And so every time you just make it easier to stay in a car you’re not helping.”

Jacobs and Commissioners Bernadette Pelissier and Penny Rich spoke in favor of keeping the drive-thru prohibition. Commissioners Mark Dorosin, Renee Price, Mia Burroughs, and Earl McKee spoke against the restriction.

“I think it’s an overly limiting restriction on economic development. I think there’s a lot higher priorities to reduce our carbon footprint, like getting students on buses, for example. So I would be open to removing that prohibition,” Dorosin said.

“It’s insane,” Justin Pearson, managing attorney for the Florida office of the Institute for Justice, told Carolina Journal in response to Jacobs’ justifications for maintaining drive-thru window bans.

Several cities in Canada and the United States have imposed limits on drive-thru facilities, citing a host of reasons, including cutting carbon emissions, reducing obesity, and encouraging more bicycle and pedestrian traffic in central business districts.

“The county has what are called police powers, which are public health and safety. Once they go outside of public health and safety, what they’re doing is unconstitutional,” Pearson said.

“It’s not the government’s job to tell you that you need to walk further, or be healthier. They’re not your parent,” Pearson said.

After extended debate commissioners decided to delay any vote on the matter.

County Planning Department staff are reviewing the table of permitted land uses in the Hillsborough Economic Development District in the Interstate 40/Old NC Highway 86 area.

The county wants to use quarter-cent sales tax revenue to extend town water and sewer services there, and to update land use and zoning regulations to expand the tax base by luring large-scale commercial, industrial, retail, and residential development on a few hundred acres of property in the immediate future.

“There is not a countywide ban, within our planning jurisdiction, on drive-thru facilities,” said Michael Harvey, county current planning supervisor. “Drive-thru facilities are prohibited from being developed within the various Hillsborough Economic Development Districts, and for properties located within the Efland-Cheeks Highway 70 Corridor Overlay District.”

The prohibition “is not necessarily connected to a specific land use,” Harvey said. Rather, it relates only to the actual facility. As examples, a bank, fast-food restaurant, or pharmacy might be allowed in those development districts, but they would be barred from having a drive-up component.

Price raised the drive-thru ban issue, asking if it would apply to the Hillsborough district, which is envisioned to include upscale development, such as technology research and development businesses or a medical park.

She said she backs the ban on drive-up businesses. Customers who park their cars and walk into a business minimize “extra pollution” when drive-thru lanes back up. But she is concerned that eliminating drive-thru windows hamper the elderly, disabled, and people with special-needs children, among others.

Perdita Holtz, county planning systems coordinator, said the staff was not planning to strike the prohibition.

“Certainly it could be removed if the board decided,” Holtz said, seeking direction from the commissioners. Alternatively, she said, the commissioners could rewrite regulations to allow a business to seek a case-by-case exception to the drive-thru prohibition.

Jacobs said the county commissioners denied drive-thru businesses at Buckhorn Village in 2008, “and developers said if they’re going to be excluded, then other economic development areas, out of fairness, ought to be excluded.” Developers eventually withdrew their plans for that mixed-use megamall along Interstate 85 near Mebane.

Jacobs said granting exceptions on a case-by-case would be preferable to eliminating the restriction.

“I actually like the idea of leaving [the prohibition] in, and having people come to us and request having a drive-thru,” Rich said. “People not getting out of their car just defeats the purpose” of attempts to reduce the county’s carbon footprint, and increase personal health.

Pearson warned against that approach, which is widely used by cities in Florida “to micromanage you to come on bended knee, and kiss their ring, and ask for an exemption. And if you’re a powerful enough business you’ll get the exemption, and if you’re not you won’t.” Large chains often prevail, he said. Mom-and-pop stores generally do not.

“It is rife with abuse, and leads to all types of problems. It’s not applied fairly,” Pearson said.

“These businesses that have drive-thru windows make substantially more than the ones who don’t,” he said. “So these drive-thru windows are good for the economy, they’re good for the small business owners, they’re good for employees, and they’re good for customers.”

“In some communities they imbue [policies] with tremendous global significance. Certainly that happens in Orange County, but it happens elsewhere as well,” Brent Lane, director of the UNC Center for Competitive Economies, told CJ. “That’s an example of local representative government at work regardless of whether it has any social or economic impact.”

Orange County commissioners “are simply choosing not to have certain types of economic growth because, I assume, they think they’re representing the best interests of their constituents,” Lane said. “It’s up to their constituents to tell them otherwise” at the ballot box if they disagree.

The Town of Carrboro also has a drive-thru ban. Hillsborough has some areas in town where they are allowed, and some where they are proscribed.

Mark Marcopolos told commissioners during Monday’s meeting that when he was a member of the county Economic Development Commission in 2010 there was a recommendation to allow drive-thru business features, in conjunction with coordinated education campaigns, signs, and contests warning about pollution from idling cars.

“I would suggest that we revisit that idea,” Marcopolos said.