Visalia seeks solutions to drive-thru deluge

Busy drive-thru lanes at Visalia franchises are backing up onto city streets, congesting traffic

VISALIA – The city council and planning commission are working to find a solution for drive-thru traffic build-ups at various fast-food franchises across Visalia.  

The topic of this issue was discussed in a joint meeting between the city council and planning commission on June 13. According to the agenda, there has been an observable increase in requests for the development of drive-thru buildings. This is most likely due to recent development proposals that will bring new shopping centers with sites dedicated to drive-thru usage, as also stated in the agenda.

Some franchises with notable traffic build-up include the more recently added Dutch Bros. and the ever popular In-N-Out, but according to Visalia Mayor Steve Nelsen, franchises like The Habit Burger with a single car lane that leads directly into a busy road like Mooney Boulevard can also be cause for concern.

This situation is not new to Visalia. Cristobal Carrillo, associate planner for Visalia, said the situation started a few years prior to the pandemic. 

“We [refer to] it as problems that grew during the onset of the pandemic and the establishment of more popular drive-thru restaurants in the city,” Carrillo said. “Both kind of happened at the same time around 2018-2019 and it started resulting in impacts to surrounding areas.”

Mayor Nelsen confirmed that this item had already been discussed between himself and the likes of the business department, but recent additions to the community are what brought it to the city council. “I think what brought it really to the forefront was the development on [W Riggin Ave.],” he said. “That’s kind of what started the thought process that we need to start thinking about ‘how do we handle the flow?’”

Going forward, Nelsen said city planners and the planning commission will continue to come up with solutions for drive-thru traffic. According to the agenda, some of the solutions could include:

  • Requiring businesses prove a proposed drive-thru will not impact the project site and surrounding areas.
  • Requiring drive-thrus to have deeper lanes for on-site vehicle stacking.
  • Limiting the number of drive-thrus allowed in a single shopping center.
  • Prohibiting drive-thrus from being built within a short distance of residential areas.
  • Limiting hours of operation and/or prohibiting drive-thru windows from operating 24-hours a day.
  • Evaluating additional fees to fund traffic improvements.
  • Drafting design guidelines for drive-thru uses.
  • Revoking permit approvals for drive-thrus with ongoing issues.
  • Keeping the performance standards as originally written.
  • Reducing the scope of existing performance standards.

Like any public decision, however, it will take time. “When you come from the private sector, you make a decision today [in current time] and it’s enacted tomorrow,” he pointed out. “When you work in the public sector, there’s a process. And so we now have to work through the process. It’s not going to be instantaneous.”

Nelsen went on to stress the importance of a decision like this. “You want to make sure what you’ve come up with is meaningful, legal, and fair,” he said.

Nelsen said there is little evidence COVID-19 restrictions agitated the issue. “Everybody was alluding to the fact that during COVID, no one wanted to sit in a restaurant, so that’s why it impacted drive-thrus,” he said. “What they found is there’s really not been that much of a decrease.”

Nelsen admits the pandemic may have forced restaurants to shift their business model from dine-in only to a combination of streamlined orders to go, new delivery options as well as in-person dining. This change allowed them to accommodate customers’ tastes for eating at home.

“We really haven’t seen that downtick, which is kind of interesting,” Nelsen said.

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