A Side of History


A hopeful signpost greets travelers in search of history as they approach the cradle of southern Orange County mission country here. It tells them they have only another 1,200 feet to go to reach the famed Spanish settlement for which the town was named.

But in less than the scant quarter-mile trip from the confluence of Interstate 5 and Ortega Highway to the solemn walls of Mission San Juan Capistrano, travelers confront several other signs: “Spicy Crispy Chicken Sandwich.” “Jumbo Jack 99.” Yards away, more signs: “Drip Happens.” “Steak Out.” “24 Hour Drive Thru.”

Dueling banners promise two new fast-food restaurants, both selling tacos, directly across the street from each other, with crews working through weekends in a race to lure customers in from the bustling streets. A third new fast-food joint is under construction. Three others already are in business in all, six along a 500-foot stretch of Del Obispo Street, Spanish for bishop.


Dismayed, city officials now are calling for a moratorium, saying it’s time to decide where and how fast-food businesses fit in their unique city, if at all.

“We have a rather delicate city in terms of the historic aspects,” said John Greiner, San Juan Capistrano’s mayor pro tem. “When you see a lot of neon lighting and the types of colors that go along with quick-service restaurants, it’s not consistent with the historic characteristics we have. If we don’t stop it now, in another week or a month, how many more will we have?”

By proposing a temporary ban, San Juan Capistrano joins other California cities in which local officials have taken an aggressive stance in regulating a fast-growing industry. Last year, Sierra Madre banned drive-through restaurants. Temporary bans or regulations have been used in Newport Beach, South Pasadena and Burbank to control the light, noise, traffic and aesthetic effect of fast-food establishments.

Greiner, a retired Allstate Insurance Co. executive and first-year council member, proposed a moratorium in December. It has been scheduled for a public hearing and a vote by the city council on Jan. 20. City planners already have decided to recommend in favor of the moratorium, which needs approval from four of the five council members.

But some fear a moratorium has come too late in a city that closely guards its historic treasures and traditions and ritually celebrates them in carefully planned events each year.

“It’s what we live and breathe here,” said resident William Hardy, who chairs the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission.


“But if you ask me, they’re closing the barn door after the horses got out,” Hardy said of the proposed moratorium. “Six of them on the same corner is totally excessive.”


But restaurant industry officials say that fast-food restaurants are part of California’s history and tradition.

This state, they point out, was the birthplace of the drive-through window. It also was a pioneer in the take-out doggie bag and in valet parking.

On any given day, “almost half of all adults are food-service patrons,” said Lisa Doermann, spokesperson for the California Restaurant Assn. “Restaurants are a convenience for our patrons, so we’d hate to see something like that [moratorium] happen.”

There are 71,300 restaurants in the state, and more than half of their total sales are meals sold at restaurants classified as quick-service or limited-service, terms the industry prefers to “fast food.”

According to restaurant industry figures, each establishment serves up to 1,400 meals a day. More than half of them are sold to drive-through customers, one reason the industry abhors building restaurants without drive-through windows as a compromise.


“One in 10 meals in California is eaten while driving a car,” Doermann said. Only about 25% of quick-service consumers eat their meals inside a restaurant, according to published industry figures.

But the city that hosts the historic Los Rios district, California’s oldest neighborhood, shouldn’t have to offer each new product from fast-food test kitchens, argue proponents of the moratorium.

“They do provide a service, and they have a positive effect on the economy,” Greiner said. “But sometimes, the structures end up too big and gaudy-looking.”

Greiner served on the city’s planning commission for six years but said that the panel is powerless to stop development if a parcel’s zoning matches a proposed use.

City officials need a moratorium to free them from the pressure of more development while they study the situation, although no applications are pending, said Tom Tomlinson, San Juan Capistrano planning director.

“There are some questions we need to answer,” Tomlinson said. “Are we becoming a regional market between two large areas--San Diego and L.A.?”


If approved, a moratorium could last only 45 days under state law but could be extended by the city council in March, Tomlinson said.

But San Juan Capistrano is no stranger to harsh approaches to development. It recently lifted a one-year moratorium on adult-oriented businesses to allow development of guidelines.

Restaurant proponents argue that traffic studies ordered by the city ended up showing the Mission area could support the congestion around the restaurants. But city officials remain skeptical.

“The system would function, but there’s a point at which the system breaks down,” Tomlinson said.