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California city may declare Chick-fil-A a "public nuisance"

Chick-fil-A is causing some squawking in southern California, one of multiple locations across the U.S. where the fast-food chain is finding itself to be a victim of its own success. 

In Santa Barbara, the city is close to dubbing its sole Chick-fil-A a "public nuisance" due to long drive-thru lines that often has cars filled with hungry customers backed into the street for hours at a time.

The eatery known for its waffle fries and chicken sandwiches has had a restaurant in Santa Barbara since 2013, drawing a steady flow of patrons whose vehicles block nearby driveways and sidewalks and make city buses and emergency vehicles find other routes, according to city officials. 

Chick-fil-A's drive-thru lane heightens the odds of traffic collisions and pedestrians getting injured. At peak-volume, the drive-through blocks one lane of traffic for as much as 90 minutes on weekdays and for as much as 155 minutes on Saturdays, according to a city traffic report.   

"The city's traffic engineer, police chief and community development director have evaluated the situation and believe that the persistent traffic back-up onto State Street is a public nuisance and that the nuisance is caused by the operation of a drive-through at the Chick-fil-A restaurant," the document stated.

Kristen Sneddon, a member of Santa Barbara's city council, believes the restaurant may have outgrown the location and that the problem can't be fixed, according to the Santa Barbara News-Press. "Chick-fil-A has a good problem here. They are so successful, they have outgrown their site. It's possible they were oversized for that site, to begin with," Sneddon told a council meeting earlier this month, the newspaper reported

That success is reflected in long drive-thru lines at Chick-fil-A's elsewhere around the country. Quick-service restaurant trade pub QSR listed Chick-fil-A as having the busiest drive-thru windows of any national chain in a 2019 study.

At the city council session, Sneddon and other members unanimously approved moving toward a potential public nuisance designation. Chick-fil-A representatives asked the council to delay the nuisance designation and give it additional time to work on the fixing the problem. The council agreed to continued a public hearing until June 7.

Travis Collins, the franchised operator of the restaurant, said in a statement emailed to CBS MoneyWatch by Chick-fil-A that he wants to "be a good neighbor," and was continuing efforts to ease the traffic issues. That's including hiring additional staff and third-party traffic control, he said. 

Local feathers ruffled 

For some people living nearby, the traffic issue has been brewing for years, and it's only of late that the problem is getting serious attention by the city and the company.

"In the past, it felt like the complaints were taken half-seriously," resident Rick Closson told the Los Angeles Times. "Over the years, you've had Chick-fil-A putting together their fixes that really did not do much to fix the traffic problem. But then you have the city coming forward with a possible nuisance title, and the corporation is now saying, 'Oh my goodness, please just give us more time to solve this.'"

Drive-thru businesses are unusual in Santa Barbara as the city has prohibited their construction for more than four decades. But Chick-fil-A is grandfathered into its location, as it was previously a Burger King drive-thru with nothing like the current traffic.  

Chick-fil-A's long drive-thru lines have ruffled feathers elsewhere. Business owners in Toledo, Ohio; Beaumont, Texas; and Union, New Jersey, all have sued Chick-fil-A in 2020 after alleging that long drive-thru lines were turning away customers, according to Insider. The publication also reported finding dozens of such complaints, police interventions and significant traffic woes related to Chick-fil-A's drive-thru lines in more than 20 states in recent years.

In Norwalk, Connecticut, Chick-fil-A is proposing that it get rid of an existing drive-thru and rebuild it on the other side of the building to ease traffic backups occurring since it opened two years ago, a local newspaper, The Hour, recently reported

One of the issues behind the congestion is that "this is the only Chick-fil-A around," Elizabeth Sucky, an attorney for Chick-fil-A told a city zoning commission last year. "The closest around are in Danbury and Brookfield. Folks really like this product and the customer service that goes along with it, it's very popular." 

Also in Connecticut, Brookfield city officials last year opted to build an extra lane for cars crossing into a Chick-fil-A entrance, with the federal government picking up 80% of the tab, CT Insider reported this month. And another town in the state, Fairfield, in November denied the chain's proposal to take over a former restaurant, with officials saying they made the decision after considering Norwalk's experience with the chain. 

Traffic also regularly causes congestion near a Chick-fil-A close to one of the busiest intersections in Brooklyn, New York, slowing vehicles to a crawl and causing backups. Efforts to mitigate the problem, including placing metal barriers in the street to deter people from double-parking, have been only partially successful, according to one local resident.

In Redding, California, a newly opened Chick-fil-A drew a long line of cars in March of last year, according to a local CBS affiliate, and had police issuing a traffic alert to heed off congestion outside the eatery. 

—Alain Sherter contributed to this story.

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