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Drive-thru windows may be a popular convenience for those on the move, but Santa Rosa's rejection of a Chick-fil-A on Mendocino Avenue shows they remain a hot topic for those worried about global warming.

The city has struggled for years with how to handle requests for businesses with drive-thrus given the county's goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 75 percent of 1990 levels by 2015.

Critics contend that lines of idling cars waiting for cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets or prescription drugs waste gas, harm air quality and increase greenhouse gas emissions.

But supporters note that they serve a need in the community and some studies show restricting or banning them would not result in any significant reduction in emissions.

The Planning Commission decision last week, on a 3-3 vote, not to grant Chick-fil-A a use permit for its restaurant and drive-thru reflects just how conflicted the community remains on the issue.

Commissioner Curtis Byrd said he couldn't understand how the city's consultant could say that the emissions from the Chick-fil-A's drive-thru would have an insignificant impact on the environment.

"It doesn't make sense to me that a queue of five minutes with 17, 18 cars does not contribute to our air quality. It can't be right!" Byrd declared as he explained why he voted against the project.

The issue first gained momentum in Santa Rosa in 2007 with the approval of a Longs pharmacy, now CVS, with a drive-thru on Stony Point Road. Then in 2009, popular chain In-N-Out Burger proposed a restaurant at the busy intersection of Steele Lane and County Center Drive.

During the In-N-Out debate, the Planning Commission examined the greenhouse gas emissions issue, at one point discussing a moratorium on new applications until a drive-thru policy could be crafted. The commission eventually approved the restaurant with several conditions, including signs requesting drivers turn off their engines as they wait in line.

Following that contentious process, the Planning Commission sent a letter to the council urging it to adopt a citywide policy on the issue. It has yet to do so.

Councilwoman Susan Gorin, who came out strongly in favor of a cap on new drive-thrus in 2009 when she was mayor, said she feels the same way today.

She said that for some people, such as the elderly and mothers with young children, they serve legitimate purposes. But she said there are enough such establishments and more should not be encouraged.

But the current council majority has other priorities, said Councilman Scott Bartley. Given the city's limited budget and planning staff, the council has chosen to focus on issues such as rewriting zoning codes to be more business-friendly, Bartley said. He noted that the issue seems to come up about every two years, a rate of new drive-thrus that does not concern him.

And, he said, the amount of additional greenhouse gas emissions from a drive-thru is "zilch," he said.

That's the controversial conclusion reached by the consultant working on the city's Climate Action Plan, a document that evaluates the city's greenhouse gas emissions and proposes policy changes to help the city reach climate protection goals.

The draft of the plan initially included an outright ban on all new drive-thrus on the theory that they would reduce emissions. But the Planning Commission last month voted to remove the ban from the draft plan, noting that for certain people drive-thrus are more than a mere convenience. An analysis done by the city's consultant also showed that a ban wouldn't measurably reduce carbon dioxide levels in the city, according to city planner Gillian Hayes.

The consultant who handled the Chick-fil-A environmental analysis similarly concluded that emissions wouldn't have a significant impact on air quality or greenhouse gases.

The report by Michael Brandman Associates concluded that construction and operation of a 4,400-square-foot restaurant on the site of a vacant former Burger King building would produce about 979 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, below the 1,100 threshold to require environmental mitigation under local Bay Area Air Quality Management District guidelines.

The rejection of the permit request means the issue will head to the City Council for what likely will be a more favorable hearing.

Chick-fil-A officials on Monday filed an appeal of the Planning Commission's decision. The College Park, Ga.-based company noted that its project meets all the rules set forth for drive-thrus in the city. It also pointed out the restaurant will be oriented to the street, is pedestrian friendly and includes abundant landscaping and more than three times the bicycle parking required by city code (20 versus 6).

A traffic consultant estimated the restaurant would generate 2,158 vehicle trips per day. The company has said it expects to serve about 50 percent of its customers at the drive-thru.

Planning Commissioner Peter Stanley said in his remarks last week that having walkable communities is a laudable goal, but it shouldn't be the only one.

"We just can't tell people to get out of their cars. I don't think we can legislate that," Stanley said.

The appeal is expected to be heard by the council May 22.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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