As someone who has spent 15 years tracking and exposing how labor unions exploit the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to block proposed projects in pursuit of objectives unrelated to environmental protection, I predict Chick-fil-A is about to join Wal-Mart and large solar power plant developers as a favorite California target of “greenmail,” or environmental permit extortion.
Based on the latest developments outlined below, one can conclude that the days are over of city planning staff in California quietly granting routine zoning variances for Chick-fil-A. Soon the company will be dealing with lawsuits demanding lengthy and costly Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs), and after those reports are completed and the projects are approved, then there will be more lawsuits challenging the adequacy of the reports and the steps for environmental mitigation.
Obvious weak points for Chick-fil-A are traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles idling in drive-through lines. In-N-Out Burger has dealt with these issues in recent years (recent examples being neighborhood resistance in Studio City, Santa Rosa, Pleasant Hill, and Seaside), but Chick-fil-A will surely provide ripe new opportunities for environmental law firms to test their theories and hone their skills in blocking proposed fast food restaurants.
Chick-fil-A and Wal-Mart: Two Southern-Based Corporations Destined to Face Resistance in California
The Chick-fil-A venture into California is similar to the experience of Wal-Mart as it expanded out of the South and began moving into the very different political, religious, and socio-economic culture of the major metropolitan areas of California and the Northeast. Wal-Mart entered California quietly in the 1990s, but as it began operating in the cities and seeking approval for “Supercenters” that sell groceries, it started to get hammered by a broad coalition of unions, environmental groups, academics, and activists who represented innumerable “progressive” interests. Underlying these interests were subtle class connotations: California’s elite recoiled from the values, priorities, and business practices of the South.
In the mid-2000s, Wal-Mart frequently dealt with environmental objections backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. For example, William D. Kopper, an attorney based in Davis, took various actions to block approval of Wal-Marts in several California cities, including in Oroville, Stockton, Galt, Santa Rosa, Redding, Ukiah, and Gilroy. (Kopper also did the same kind of work for construction unions seeking Project Labor Agreements from developers.) The UFCW found local allies among a variety of community groups and local activists determined to keep Wal-Mart out of their town.
Now Chick-fil-A has moved into the same regions and invited the same responses. Like Wal-Mart, it moved in quietly, opening its first Southern California locations (eight of them) in 2004 and its first Northern California location in Roseville (a suburb of Sacramento) in October 2005. Since then outlets have been popping up throughout the state. It is finally daring to move into the San Francisco Bay Area, and people are taking notice.
Chick-fil-A in the San Francisco Bay Area – It’s Going to Be a Tough Road Ahead
The Mayor of San Francisco – Ed Lee – received national news media attention last week for jumping on the Chick-fil-A commentary bandwagon with his back-to-back Tweets on July 26:
#ChickFilA doesn’t share San Francisco’s values & strong commitment to equality for everyone.
#ChickFilA to San Francisco is 40 miles away & I strongly recommend that they not try to come any closer.
This Chick-fil-A location 40 miles from San Francisco and referenced by Mayor Lee is the corporation’s current equivalent of Fort Ross, the southernmost frontier post of the Russian Empire in Alta California. Fort Ross was founded in 1812 as Russia penetrated deep into Spanish-claimed territory in what is now Sonoma County.
You can visit Fort Ross today (it’s a state park), and you can also visit the only operating San Francisco Bay Area Chick-fil-A in Fairfield, just off I-80 at the Travis Boulevard exit next to the Westfield Solano Mall.
According to the Chick-fil-A web site, an establishment will open in San Jose on August 16. There will be protests. Another one will open in Walnut Creek on September 20, and a protest is already being planned.
There is likely to be disruption if the planned Chick-fil-A ever opens in Santa Rosa, according to an article in the July 25 Santa Rosa Press-Democrat newspaper. That proposed restaurant had already generated controversy: the Santa Rosa City Council had voted 5-2 at its May 22 meeting to grant approval to build the Chick-fil-A at the site of a vacant Burger King after the Santa Rosa Planning Commission had rejected it on a 3-3-1 vote at its April 12 meeting. Opponents cited the greenhouse gas emissions of vehicles in the planned drive-through lane and general objections to fast food. (See the city staff report here.)
One Santa Rosa City Council member who voted against the Chick-fil-A was Susan Gorin, who is in a highly-competitive race for a seat on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. I’m guessing she’ll be trying to ride this high-profile issue to victory in November.
Note that the Chick-fil-A planned for Santa Rosa “is also proposing to incorporate Public Art in Private Development and is currently working with the City parks department to find an artist.” This may become another interesting angle: who will be the artist, and will a subversive message be expressed through the public art?
Meanwhile, in Mountain View (a suburb of San Jose), two citizens raised $1000 to challenge a “routine zoning variance” from city staff to allow a Chick-fil-A to build an outlet there. This article from the July 20 San Jose Mercury-News indicates that they intend to use traffic-related concerns to stop it:
“We need to make our city better – more sidewalk and bicycle friendly – not worse by increasing the number of cars driving up and over our sidewalks to speed in and get fast food,” the appeal states. “The convenience of drive-thru junk food is not worth the increased danger the traffic poses to our citizens.”
This campaign in Mountain View has a fundraising site and is reportedly receiving support from former city councilmember and State Senate candidate Sally Lieber, who is best known for introducing a bill to ban (child) spanking when she was in the California State Assembly. Lieber has a highly competitive race against another Democrat for this seat.
Chick-fil-A in Southern California: Potential for Trouble There, Too
A Chick-fil-A operating in West Hollywood was profiled in this article in the Los Angeles Times on July 28. Meanwhile, a Chick-fil-A opened in Laguna Hills (in Orange County) on July 26 and experienced an opening day protest, as reported here in the Los Angeles Times and here in the Orange County Register.
According to the Chick-fil-A web site, Chick-fil-A outlets will open in Westlake Village (in Los Angeles County) on August 30, Buena Park (in Orange County) on September 13, and Encinitas (in San Diego County) on September 20.
An Unexpected Opportunity for the Public to Learn About Misuse of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)
One of the frustrations of trying to educate the public about CEQA abuse by labor unions is that many reporters completely miss how the fundamental issue at play has nothing to do with environmental concerns. They take the comments, data requests, and lawsuits at face value.
Of course, the legal arguments on the surface are simply a public charade, while the real underlying issue (pressuring the developer to sign a union agreement or trying to block non-union competition) stays hidden from the public. With the upcoming environmental objections to Chick-fil-A, the underlying issue will never be mentioned in the legal documents, but the objective will be apparent and understood by all observers.