To McDonalds or Not to McDonalds

The SLO County Board of Supervisors approved a McDonalds in Los Osos, but the outcome was not based on land use policy — and that’s a problem.

On Tuesday, the County Board of Supervisors voted to approve a proposed McDonalds in Los Osos with a drive-thru. District 2 Supervisor Bruce Gibson was the dissenting vote. Gibson said it wasn’t in the town’s “character” for the McDonalds to have a drive-thru in Los Osos. Nonetheless, he supported a McDonalds being there. The others supported the McDonalds because it would fill a building that was vacant for nine years; that it would also be a convenience for seniors who have trouble getting out cars. District 5 Supervisor Debbie Arnold supported the McDonalds because she believed in the virtues of property rights. District 4 Supervisor Caren Ray said that she supported the project, in part, because the applicants were from her district and that they were “good people.” Why would she volunteer that information during her campaign?

Around 100 people showed up to oppose McDonalds. 1,884 signatures were collected for a petition that opposed a McDonalds in Los Osos. Residents opposed McDonalds for a colorful assortment of reasons. McDonalds contributes to obesity. McDonalds only creates low-wage jobs, which fall well below living wage standards. A drive-thru in Los Osos would ruin the town’s reputation for being pedestrian-friendly. A drive-thru would cause major traffic problems on Los Osos Valley Rd. What about the water? What about the retrofits? Going through the list of pros and cons for a McDonalds in Los Osos is exhausting. It reminds me of a controversial issue that people fought over for nearly thirty years. Oh wait!

The discussion before the County Planning Commission on February 6 offered more clinical analysis. It wasn’t about seniors who had trouble getting out of cars, property rights, or whether the applicants were good people or not. The commissioners looked at several factors including, but not limited to, on-sight wastewater disposal, drainage, setbacks, signage, parking and traffic control. It’s true that the Board of Supervisors voted on adjusting the applicant’s residential retrofit ratio to 1.6 to 1, there was surprisingly little board discussion — within the span of five hours — about key issues raised by the Planning Commission, including traffic congestion (i.e. having to make an immediate left into McDonalds and leaving the same way you came in, drive-thru overflow during peak hours).

It’s commendable that the Board of Supervisors would get the applicant to retrofit plumbing to 698 gallons a day, making them use less water than they save. However, it’s hard to pinpoint what the board accomplished, in the long-term, other than sacrificing land use deliberation for subjective and uncomfortably whimsical decision-making.

McDonalds is truly an awkward fit for Los Osos, especially at the proposed location. It’s awkward to have a chain restaurant known for its high-demand, high-volume water consumption to be constructed in an area that still has Level 3 water severity status. It’s true that the Regional Water Quality Control Board approved the project since they determined the existing septic tank could accommodate the added wastewater flows. However, the previous use for that building was a bank. It wasn’t a bank that served fast food either.

Even if the Board of Supervisors did everything right and did their due diligence, it looks an awful lot like the project violates the spirit of the 1988 moratorium, which the California Regional Water Quality Control Board imposed on new sources of sewage discharge in Los Osos. Because of the large disparity between the wastewater flows of a bank and a McDonalds, it can be argued that the McDonalds project is actually a new source of sewage discharge — even if the water board believes that the existing septic tank can work. And if businesses with high-volume wastewater flows can develop in Los Osos if they can retrofit surrounding homes, why does a moratorium still exist? While we’re at it, let’s replace the Vons in the same shopping center with a Trader Joe’s. Maybe Trader Joe’s can retrofit the entire town! What a deal!

I don’t feel that the board really thought this one though.