Appeals board passes Chick-Fil-A exception

4-0 vote on drive-through smoothed by approval of Ellicott City residents

June 09, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

When Kenneth L. Chamberlain of Lee Farm Court in Ellicott City found out last fall that a Chick-Fil-A drive-through restaurant was planned at a site virtually across the street from his home, he did everything he could to stop it from happening.

But at a Howard County Board of Appeals meeting last night, Chamberlain sat quietly while representatives from his and a neighboring community expressed their support for the project. His expression hardly changed when the board voted 4-0 to approve a special exception for the restaurant and a variance for a trash container.

"If it wasn't Chick-Fil-A then it would be somebody else," Chamberlain said yesterday before the meeting. "And that somebody else could be the worst of two evils."

How did Chick-Fil-A manage to turn the ire of Chamberlain and his neighbors into grudging approval?

Good public relations.

When the restaurant was first proposed, Chamberlain said, Chick-Fil-A officials did not meet with neighbors, tell them their plans or ask for input. Chamberlain said he and others in the community found out about the restaurant from a half-hidden sign by the road.

They did not react well. Neighbors drew up a petition objecting to a free-standing sign and wrote a letter of protest to Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the county Department of Planning and Zoning. They came out in force to a Board of Appeals meeting in October to protest Chick-Fil-A, expressing concerns about traffic, litter, crime and lowered property values.

At that October meeting, the board deadlocked 2-2 over whether to approve a special exception for the restaurant. The fifth board member, George L. Layman, was running for County Council and was not present.

Chick-Fil-A officials withdrew their plans several days after the vote.

Six months later, they were back with virtually the same plans -- but with a new strategy. This time, they worked with neighbors and smoothed relations with the community.

A Chick-Fil-A official from company headquarters in Atlanta met with the boards of the two neighborhoods that opposed the project. He addressed their concerns about traffic, crime and litter and agreed to change the site plans to make the restaurant less visible from the road.

Neighbors responded favorably.

"They've been just great as far as negotiating it," said William C. Gleaves, who replaced Chamberlain as president of Ellicott Park Townhouse Condominium, Section Two, Association, Inc. "We've been very, very pleased. The first time, they didn't do anything at all."

Gleaves said community leaders and Chick-Fil-A officials have discussed developing a community group to address concerns as they arise. He said Chick-Fil-A officials have also agreed to build a sidewalk and add trees and a hedge to shield the restaurant from the road.

In testimony, Chick-Fil-A representatives confirmed that the restaurant had agreed to these changes.

As for Chamberlain, he still wonders what could have happened if his neighbors had fought harder to prevent the restaurant from going in, if they hadn't been, as he said, "apathetic to it all."

Chamberlain pointed out that only a few neighbors bothered to attend last night's meeting -- a big change from the angry dozens that came to the October meeting.

He, for one, got tired of fighting.

"I don't want to have a drive-through there, but that's water under the bridge, or over the dam," he said. "You live with it."

Pub Date: 6/09/99

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