It’s one of those issues that probably bothers you hardly at all — unless it’s happening next door.
When it is happening there, though, it’s suddenly a big deal indeed, which is perhaps why regulations for drive-thru restaurants have been such a struggle for St. John’s city council.
The issue doesn’t affect enough people to become a public opinion cause célèbre. It doesn’t generate enough broad-ranging passion — approval or disapproval — for councillors to be able to accurately measure where the public stands on the issue. The one thing you know for sure, though, is that any resident who’s facing the prospect of a new drive-thru restaurant as a neighbour has serious and legitimate concerns.
There are the cooking smells, the constant noise, the litter, (even the glare of headlights sweeping across fencing) and the fact that many drive-thrus are 24-hour operations; it is the antithesis of neighbourliness.
The city has been considering new drive-thru regulations for over a year, ever since discussion erupted about the approval of a drive-thru at Torbay Road and Pearson Street last winter. The problem? How do you make what’s essentially not any sort of neighbourhood business fit, especially in an already-established area?
As usual, there are other issues to consider as well: more drive-thrus means more construction and more business, which means more tax dollars and more permit fees. The drive-thrus also offer services that other citizens of the city clearly enjoy having available.
The question is whether the harm to the few outweighs the possible benefits to others, including the city’s coffers.
That’s probably why the debate, right now, centres around mitigation. The council is examining requirements for five-metre buffer zones with a sound barrier, 15-metre buffer zones (essentially equivalent to a full building lot) or a total ban on the operations in areas where they would abut residential property. Five metres is remarkably short — a basketball pass. But a total ban is hard for a revenue-hungry council to stomach. So be prepared for council to somehow split the difference.
City manager Bob Smart made an interesting point during a recent planning committee meeting considering the new standards: not many people, he said, would want a drive-thru within five metres of their homes. Most at the meeting seemed to agree. The committee wound up choosing a fourth option: a 15-metre buffer and a sound barrier designed by an acoustic engineer.
The battle’s not over. The full council will look at the recommendation next week. Maybe they could go on the road and convene that meeting 15 metres away from an already-operating nighttime drive-thru. It might well be an enlightening experience — and they wouldn’t even be trying to sleep.