Council OK’s drive-thru coffee shop

ATASCADERO — The Atascadero City Council approved plans for a new Human Bean drive-thru coffee shop near the corner of El Camino Real and Curbaril Avenue at its meeting last Tuesday, after sifting through the static of the area neighbors. 

Plans for the project, located at 7835 El Camino Real, were approved by the City’s Design Review Committee last year and by the Planning Commission Dec. 3. The developer plans to demolish a home located on the property and to use an existing 600 square-foot building as a warehouse and distribution center.

Atascadero Human Bean Lot 003
Location of future The Human Bean drive-thru coffee shop. Photo by Nicholas Mattson

Atascadero resident Al Fonzi and his wife Roberta, who serves on the Atascadero City Council, live less than 500 feet from the project site and brought their concerns regarding a noise nuisance caused by the coffee shop’s order speaker to the Planning Commission but the appeal was denied.

Mayor Heather Moreno again appealed the decision, bringing the project to the City Council for further review with Councilmember Fonzi recused herself from the conversation.

“It’s really a one-issue appeal based on residential or neighborhood compatibility, based on exterior noise from that drive-thru use and particularly regarding an outdoor speaker for ordering,” said Community Development Director Phil Dunsmore.

Out of the three adjacent residences, Fonzi was the only one to express concern about noise levels with the other two neighbors being supportive of the project.

“We do not see this as a neighborhood issue, we see it as an issue to the three adjacent property owners and that the acoustical report determined there’s no increase in the noise level at all three properties,” said Pamela Jardini, a representative of the applicant.

The applicant paid to have a noise study conducted using the City’s estimated average daily traffic numbers on El Camino Real to determine the ambient noise level. As one of the conditions set for the project by the Planning Commission, the speaker must have a device installed to dynamically adjust the volume of the speaker so that it is below ambient noise levels at a certain distance.

According to Dr. David Lords, who conducted the noise study, the device will mean that the speaker will not be audible at nearby property lines, with the closest being more than 100 feet away. He was so confident in his findings that he said he would pay to install a “sound wall” to buffer the noise if it became necessary.

“I will pay for the noise wall if it’s necessary, I’m so confident,” he said. “The applicant was my client but we received no directions from them. They asked us to do a noise study and let them know what we find and this is what we found.”

Moreno and Councilmember Charles Bourbeau were both skeptical and took issue with using the average daily traffic to measure the ambient noise levels.

“I’m always suspicious of the assertion, ‘he won’t hear anything at all,’” Bourbeau said. “I’ve been out in our community at 5 in the morning and unfortunately, it’s a very small town. There are going to be lulls where there’s zero traffic driving by and I’m concerned that you say you’d hear nothing.”

Lords reminded the Council that with the Automatic Volume Control device installed, the speaker would never be more than 15 decibels higher than the ambient noise, adding just “a whisper” according to Lords. 

Project neighbor Al Fonzi spoke during the public comment portion of the hearing, saying that his real issue with the project is the fact that it will be allowed to open at 5 a.m.

“On a Sunday morning, you can almost hear a cat cross the street it’s so quiet,” he said, adding that he had lived at the 104-year-old home for the past 26 years.

“I don’t have any air conditioning in it so in the summertime, we have our windows open at night to let the cool air in and seal it up in the morning,” he said. “Most of the time it’s not a problem and living a block off of El Camino, I don’t expect it to be quiet as a church there all the time. But at 5 o’clock in the morning, it’s really quiet.” 

Fonzi said that 22 people who live near the project would be negatively impacted and called for a sound wall to be installed and for a “performance condition” to be added that would trigger another review of the project if neighbors started to complain. 

“You have a business that is basically going to generate traffic by design and whatever you decide here tonight, we have to live with it,” Fonzi said. “I have to go back home to that and so does my family.”

Jardini pointed out that in order to be competitive with the two Starbucks in town, which open at 4:30 a.m., the drive-thru would need to open at 5 a.m. She also pointed out that every other drive-thru coffee shop in town is allowed to operate 24/7. 

Councilmember Susan Funk addressed the possibility of a conflict of interest regarding the hearing, saying that the Council must “proceed with great caution.”

“Either we treat this situation different because a person of well-connection and prominence is raising an official complaint — and that is the stuff that drives people absolutely crazy about government,” she said. “So we have an obligation to be fair to our applicant. At the same time the resident who is facing this concern has a right to be treated as a resident of this community and treated fairly.”

Funk also pointed out that many similar businesses in the city have no such conditions placed on their hours or the noise they may produce beyond what’s allowed in the City’s noise ordinance. 

“If we’re adding less than a whisper, then I think we don’t have an issue,” she said. “Or at least we shouldn’t expect to have an issue. I think the Planning Commission got it right.”

The Council voted unanimously to approve the project with a performance condition attached. In order to trigger the condition, neighbors would need to provide evidence of an ongoing noise nuisance. 

“We understand the science and the numbers but in that report it says that sometimes you just don’t know what noise is going to do,” Moreno said. “My hope is that you are right and nobody around notices — and I have a sense you are — but that protection for our residents, I think, is important.”

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