A popular chicken fast food chain will not roost in Brea, after all, following a legal challenge from concerned residents.
Brea City Council backtracked this week on what was to be the town’s first Raising Cane restaurant. Council members voted to overturn earlier resolutions passed a year ago that paved the way for the construction of a 22-car capacity drive-thru restaurant in Gaslight Square, a shopping center along Imperial Highway, but also 20 feet across from Laurel Elementary School.
Ahead of the vote, the chain said in a Feb. 7 letter to Brea Town Manager Bill Gallardo that it “has decided not to pursue development of a Raising Cane’s restaurant on a portion of the mall known under the name of Gaslight Square”.
The move and vote came as part of a settlement agreement between Raising Cane’s, the city and a community group known as Safer Avenues for Everyone (SAFE), which challenged the planned location in court. The prospects of increased traffic and long lines so close to an elementary school and foot traffic initially prompted residents to take action.
“I am relieved and grateful that Raising Cane’s has stepped down,” said Diane Stites, a longtime Laurel Elementary volunteer and plaintiff in the lawsuit. “We’ve said from the start that we’re not against development or Raising Cane’s.”
The channel does not admit any wrongdoing in settling the disputed claims, but has agreed to cover SAFE’s legal costs. The resolution came more than a year after Brea residents began to worry about the Raising Cane’s project.
Kari Windes, a librarian at Laurel Elementary, first learned of the plan to raze two buildings in Gaslight Square in favor of a Raising Cane in November 2020 on a neighborhood app and followed up with city staff. .
One day, she was working onsite in Laurel as the campus was otherwise closed due to the pandemic and noticed someone doing a traffic count when the Imperial Highway was largely devoid of commuters.
“It immediately felt bad,” Windes said. “I wanted to make sure the kids were taken into account because they don’t have a voice.”
She filed an appeal just days after the Brea Planning Commission recommended the project be approved on December 8, 2020.
In anticipation of a city council vote on the issue, Windes, other school staff, parents and volunteers formed an organization in opposition to Raising Cane’s plan. The group launched an online petition which garnered hundreds of signatures and also staged a protest along Imperial Highway, Brea’s main thoroughfare, outside the school.
“We were rookies,” Stites said. “We are just ordinary people.”
The effort reunited Stites again with Mary Martinez, a Brea resident and Laurel Elementary staff member. The two women have already fought for a decade to revitalize Lagos de Moreno Park adjacent to the school before pleading with the city council to choose children over chicken when considering the proposed Raising Cane project.
“Common sense says there’s no way anyone would approve of this,” said Martinez, mother of eight Laurel Elementary graduates. “My primary motivation was student safety. It’s also not good for the neighborhood and it’s also not good for the two businesses in Gaslight Square.
The community group believed it had more than common sense on its side, even though it had yet to obtain legal representation.
Gaslight Square was developed in 1988 with a conditional use permit prohibiting “fast food and sit-down restaurants”, among other specific retail uses and was zoned with a precise development overlay.
Raising Cane’s applied for a permit amendment before the Planning Commission.
A lawyer representing the fast-food chain asked council members to disregard Windes’ appeal and his arguments a day before the vote. “We respectfully disagree with the legal findings,” reads the February 15, 2021 letter to council, “and urge City Council to dismiss the appeal and approve the project.”
By a close vote of 3 to 2, the council approved the project.
Windes, Martinez, Stites and her husband, Max, responded by filing a lawsuit March 24 against Raising Cane’s, the city’s management company and owner Dwight Manley.
“At the end of the day, having a drive-thru on part of our property doesn’t make it any more dangerous for anyone,” Manley said. “If a customer goes to a mattress store, to a doctor or to a coffee shop, the car always goes in and out. The volume of traffic could easily be higher for a 24-hour business without drive-thru than with a 24-hour drive-thru business.”
The suit begged to differ. Described as a ‘simple case’, it alleged that the Raising Cane site approval violated the city’s own code, planning and zoning law and had been improperly exempted from California’s environmental quality law .
“Land use limitations on the project site make sense,” reads the complaint. “A high-traffic use like a stand-alone restaurant is dangerous across from a busy elementary school with pedestrians.”
He also questioned the city’s traffic study, which the lawsuit said considered foot traffic but was conducted when Laurel Elementary was closed for remote learning during the pandemic.
Raising Cane acknowledged concerns about its often-popular drive-thru, but tried to assuage them by arguing that the restaurant was open after hours for the morning return to school and that parents were picking up students after rush hour. traffic for lunch.
“They overlooked the 11:30 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. drop-off and pick-up times,” Martinez explained. “We serve kindergarten through sixth grade. No one took notice of these little children. It was a tragedy waiting to happen.
The lawsuit asked the court to compel Brea to rescind her approval of the project; Raising Cane’s ended up pulling out of Gaslight Square as part of a tentative settlement.
Manley, who himself attended Laurel Elementary, is not a party to the settlement and did not elaborate on details regarding future site plans.
“There was an ambiguity in the zoning of the city, and we thought it best to rectify that and tie that to the improvements to the full frontage of the Imperial Highway in one plan,” he said. .
The amended permit is no longer available for new developments. For now, residents who opposed Raising Cane are keeping a watchful eye on City Hall.
“The city needs to update its general plan,” Windes said. “They can rezone certain areas, so hopefully they will remember that there are certain protections in place and honor them. Now is the time for the city council to be the voice to protect its citizens.
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