Drive-throughs among items under scrutiny in Town Council’s LUMO discussions


By Adam Powell

As the Chapel Hill Town Council begins the work of overhauling its Land Use Management Ordinance (LUMO), much of the early process involves defining various land uses and figuring out how those uses work into the town’s long-term planning. The dominant LUMO topic this week was drive-throughs and how to manage them.

Drive-throughs have become increasingly controversial at the town planning level nationwide in recent years as municipalities weigh out the pros and cons of providing space and infrastructure for businesses that rely on this automotive-intensive addition.

While drive-throughs are essential for many businesses – particularly fast-food restaurants – opponents of drive-throughs claim they lead to more emissions into the environment due to sitting cars spouting exhaust into the air, while also promoting unhealthy eating choices and lifestyles.

“On one hand, drive-throughs can be economically beneficial to a business and serve very diverse needs,” read a statement from the town’s presentation to the council at the February 21 Work Session. “On the other hand, drive-throughs can encourage car-oriented behaviors and increase emissions.”

“Drive-throughs are a surprisingly right topic for exploring the tradeoffs,” Chapel Hill

Town planner Tasmaya Lagoo said to council members.

Lagoo explained that drive-throughs, which are currently only allowed through special use permits approved by the town, can create problems related to traffic and local infrastructure, but added that many residents depend on drive-throughs for various needs. They came in especially handy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When we talk about the tradeoffs, on the one hand, we know that the drive-throughs are as car-centric – as car-oriented – of a business as you can get,” Lagoo explained. “That comes with some significant concerns. There are concerns about potential emissions, impacts on walkability, and streetscape.”

“On the other hand – and I think this is a change in thinking that is relatively recent – we saw in the last several years that drive-throughs can really be a key part of a more economically resilient business community,” Lagoo continued. “They allow businesses to serve people with a very diverse set of needs, whether those are medical needs, social needs, children or just getting food.”

Lagoo requested guidance from the council to get more specific direction on how staff will assess drive-throughs moving forward. Multiple members of the board gave their thoughts.

“I’m not really an ideologue on drive-throughs – I’m really not much of an ideologue on anything – but to me, drive-throughs are anathema to walkable places,” said Mayor Jessica Anderson. “They can sometimes interrupt pedestrian routes. They can interrupt having a really good place. And then there are places right now that have drive-throughs that if we wanted them in the future to redevelop as more walkable places, the drive-through would kind of not be really supportive of that. But then there are places like by the exit to the freeway that probably will never be very walkable.” 

The board has wide-ranging opinions on the matter, which could make final decisions on drive-throughs a challenge in the weeks and months ahead.

Council Member Melissa McCullough said,“ I am not a fan at all of drive-throughs. Their little puffs of emissions and people are breathing in [those emissions], stuck there while they’re waiting – same thing with school lines. I prefer us keeping the fact that you need a special use permit to do it except for some uses, and in appropriate places.”

Council Member Camille Berry discussed how some local families would struggle without the option of drive-through dining. One of the newer board members, Elizabeth Sharp, indicated that she lived in a town that hadn’t had drive-throughs for many years and barely noticed their absence.

“As someone who is the caregiver for someone who’s not able-bodied, I know the pharmacy’s drive-throughs have been essential at times,” said council member Paris Miller-Foushee. “So I really see some real value in permitting pharmacies. And similar with banking as well, servicing elders in the community. Those are two specific uses that segments of our community really struggle with.”

“Beyond those two uses, I’m not really interested in drive-throughs,” she added. “So I’m not interested in expanding them in any kind of way.”

Town staff will continue to discuss defining various land uses in the new LUMO in preparation for a series of public feedback forums later in the year.

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