ESCONDIDO — At its Aug. 7 meeting, the City Council discussed a new city zoning ordinance which could — among other things — place greater restrictions on drive-thru establishments and ban new pawn shops, while curtailing the proliferation of vaping and tobacco shops.
The proposed 37-page ordinance, No. 2019-09, is the product of a months-long Zoning Code and Land Use Study, and accompanying community outreach sessions, conducted by city staff. Rather than take a vote, due to questions raised about it by City Council members, the council voted 5-0 to table it for further study and deliberation until the convening again on Aug. 21.
According to documents for the meeting, the study entailed an examination of businesses leading to the ordinance which ranged from “car dealerships and sales; auto repair services and shops; fleet maintenance and storage yards; smoke, e-cigarette, and vape shops; tattoo parlors; laundromats and dry-cleaning; lodging, motels, and hotels; thrift, pawn, consignment and second-hand dealers; discount/bargain stores; banks; check-cash and payday establishments; drive-through services/restaurants; and off-site beer/liquor sales.”
In his presentation to City Council members, Assistant City Planner Mike Strong called the plan “the outgrowth of conversations between the council, Planning Commission and the community.” He also explained that over 500 notice letters were sent out to potentially impacted area businesses, as well as two print advertisements published in The San Diego Union-Tribune, and that 24 people attended the noticed public outreach meetings.
In the public comments section of the meeting, Escondido attorney James Lund said that many of his clients would worry about the possibility of always having to get a Conditional Use Permit — a license for a business to operate allowing for an exemption to prevailing city planning code — because they rely on regulatory stasis.
“I know from negotiating long-term commercial leases — I represented over 1.5 million square feet of commercial property — that when somebody is doing a grocery market or fast food they need certainty and they need long-term ability,” said Lund. “They’re entering into generally 25-, 30-, 35-year leases and CUPs scare people because they think, ‘Well, the city may take back my use. They may change it, they may limit it.’”
Others, however, praised the ordinance for making tobacco and vaping products less prevalent and available to youth. One of them was Haley Guiffrida, a program coordinator for Vista Community Clinic’s tobacco control program.
“We know that higher-density retailers that sell tobacco increase the amount of tobacco use in the city,” said Guiffrida. “By not allowing any new vape or smoke shops to come in, we’re helping to reduce access to kids who could potentially have access to a lifelong addiction. We know that kids are getting access to these products and we know that they’re abusing these products with not just tobacco, but marijuana, and these vapes can contain any sort of drugs in them now.”
Councilman John Masson expressed concerns from a different perspective.
He said he believes the ordinance could potentially box out businesses from operating in the city. In particular, Masson conveyed consternation about how it could impact the city’s Auto Park Way car dealerships and asked that city staff do direct outreach to them on the ordinance.
“We’re requiring them to stripe their parking lots when displaying their cars and to me, that’s going above and beyond what we need to be doing as a city, telling people how to operate their business and where they should park them and how they should park them,” said Masson. “As a free market guy, I’m kind of going, ‘Well, do we really want to do that if it serves a purpose and it’s legit and lawful and everything else?’”
Deputy Mayor Consuelo Martinez asked Strong how the proposal compares to that of other North County cities. Strong said that the city of Carlsbad, as one case in point, has a ban in place for new drive-thru businesses. And he said that for the other items listed in the proposed ordinance, Escondido is the “most permissive” in the entire region.
Mayor Paul McNamara weighed in from the vantage point of road congestion and the work he does representing the city as a board member for the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). He said that perhaps with less drive-thrus, it could help get cars off the roads. And he also tied in climate change concerns associated with idling vehicles.
“Of course drive-thrus essentially create hotspots and put more greenhouse gases (into the atmosphere),” said McNamara. “Got that in your Climate Action Plan, Mike? It is kind of counter to what we’re trying to do if you really think about. And look, I go through drive-thrus and I don’t want to sound like I’m above everyone else, but when you’re going to be serious about greenhouse gases, you’ve got to be serious about these things.”
Councilwoman Olga Diaz called attention to the fact that a major part of the initiative is to promote public health and more nutritious food options. It is an approach which has become increasingly common in municipalities nationwide.
“Sometimes it’s the quality of food that’s available in certain areas in certain neighborhoods,” said Diaz. “So, you have food desserts and when you have too many drive-thrus, studies show that people that live in areas like that tend to have higher rates of obesity and other medical issues, so there’s different layers to this.”
Diaz said she thinks the ordinance could have a major impact on the development of the character of Escondido going forward.
”I think it’s important that we give our city these tools to be able to more properly guide the kind of future development that we have,” said Diaz. “I hope the folks in the audience that have concerns realize that this is not intended to stop business, prohibit business, hinder business. It’s just to ensure we get the right quality of business in our community.”
City staff will now follow up on the points raised by council members during the meeting and come back with a follow up report on Aug. 21. On that date, if a council member brings a motion to do so, the ordinance could get a vote.