After issuing a zoning violation letter to Chick-fil-A this spring, Garfield Township is requiring the restaurant to address parking, backup, and circulation issues on the property before the summer tourism rush hits – or else face steps that could lead to Chick-fil-A’s permit being revoked. According to Township Planning Director John Sych, Chick-fil-A will present proposed short and long-term solutions at the planning commission’s June 8 meeting, with the improvements likely requiring Chick-fil-A to acquire more land and eliminate the possibility of a planned hotel being built next to the restaurant.
Chick-fil-A experienced significant traffic backups when the restaurant chain opened its first Traverse City location on US-31 in early March, with vehicles backing up past the Grand Traverse Mall close to the South Airport Road intersection (pictured). With customers reporting 1-2 hour waits for food, Chick-fil-A brought in local sheriff’s deputies to help direct traffic and temporarily prohibited left-turn movements on the property.
Since then, the restaurant has been ”working really hard behind the scenes to remedy the backups onto 31,” according to attorney Nicole Graf, who represents Chick-fil-A. She recently told planning commissioners Chick-fil-A hasn’t had any additional backups onto the highway since April 16 and that local operator Chris Ramsay has “hired an experienced drive-thru manager from a Chick-fil-A location on the east coast and has invested heavily in hiring and training employees to ensure he has the staff on site to effectively operate.” Ramsay has 105-110 employees and is carrying higher labor costs now in order to have a trained workforce ready for summer, according to Chick-fil-A’s Ben Creighton, who works with new restaurant owners.
However, township planning commissioners and staff have expressed concerns not only about the possibility of US-31 backups returning as summer traffic increases – especially in July when events like the National Cherry Festival are taking place – but numerous other issues on the property. After issuing a zoning violation letter on April 12, township staff sent a memo to Graf on April 28 outlining their concerns. Those included onsite vehicle circulation conflicts, excessive vehicle queuing, insufficient employee and customer parking, an unapproved temporary parking lot being used that is creating dangerous conflict points between vehicles on the site, and delays in making left turns onto US-31 that have the “potential to create hazards for vehicles.”
Significantly contributing to problems on the property was an agreement – not disclosed to Garfield Township during the restaurant’s special use permit (SUP) approval process – that Chick-fil-A and a planned hotel development directly to the east would have a shared parking lot. Jason Hill, who works for Chick-fil-A in new store construction, told planning commissioners the restaurant chain thought the hotel would be built in a similar timeframe as Chick-fil-A. “We leased this property…specifically under the auspices that this would be co-developed with a hotel that had a shared parking agreement,” he said. “That hasn’t played out the way we had hoped.” Accordingly, Chick-fil-A only has 36 parking spaces and has resorted to using a temporary makeshift lot in the northeast corner of the site. Though established as employee parking, customers are also using it for overflow parking – and are having difficulties exiting the lot without coming into conflict with other customers in the drive-thru lanes, Sych said. “We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had any…serious accidents,” he added, noting that some minor accidents have occurred on the property.
Garfield Township hasn’t yet fined Chick-fil-A for its violations, but has withheld issuing a final occupancy permit until its issues are resolved, meaning the restaurant currently only has a temporary occupancy permit. A more extreme measure could see the township revoking Chick-fil-A’s development approval under section 408 of the township ordinance. “Revocation is a strong word,” Sych acknowledged, clarifying that it “doesn’t necessarily mean” Garfield Township would immediately revoke the restaurant’s permit but would start an investigation process and determine next steps. However, Chick-fil-A representatives told planning commissioners they are committed to working with the township and resolving the issues as quickly as possible. “Chick-fil-A is all hands on deck to get this resolved,” Graf told the board.
At the planning commission’s June 8 meeting, Rob Larrea – Garfield Township’s former planning director, now a land use consultant who has been hired by Chick-fil-A to assist in addressing the restaurant’s issues – will present short and long-term solutions for improving the site. Sych said he met with Larrea and expects the short-term solutions to include Chick-fil-A either buying, leasing, or getting an access agreement for property to the east to extend its driveway further back, allowing for “sufficient stacking on site.” More property would also allow Chick-fil-A to expand the paved parking area, Sych said. Those measures, which the township wants to see in place by the end of June, would be temporary for the summer season to address increased traffic and allow staff to monitor how well the improvements function.
From there, Chick-fil-A would be required to go through a process to amend its SUP and get township approval on a long-term redesign of the property to include more parking and stacking room. “The site would have to be reconstructed,” Sych said. While a service drive has been proposed that would connect from behind Chick-fil-A over to the intersection light at Lowe’s, Sych said building that drive would require the cooperation of multiple private property owners, including the Grand Traverse Mall, which he said has not offered “good participation or interest” in the project. The service drive therefore remains in limbo for the time being.
Sych said that any kind of long-term solutions Chick-fil-A does consider will likely prevent a hotel from being built. “The (current) site is not big enough to accommodate the demand,” he said. “There is additional land…they can create that solution. It’s not like they’re hemmed in.” But with the restaurant already using more than half of the four acres planned for both Chick-fil-A and the hotel, any expansion work for Chick-fil-A parking or stacking means “there’s definitely not room for a hotel,” according to Sych. Sych said he’s been in touch with the hotel developer, who agrees the project would not be sustainable given the traffic issues on-site and would likely either look to purchase more adjacent property or find another location for the hotel.
Township officials told Chick-fil-A representatives they appreciated that the restaurant group was working to address the issues, though multiple planning commissioners were firm in their stance that the problems needed to be resolved as soon as possible or the township could take more serious action. Planning Commissioner Chris DeGood said Chick-fil-A should have a contingency plan in place this summer if their short-term measures are ineffective and traffic spills out onto the highway again. “If you fail, then we’ve got traffic continuing to back up onto 31, which is our gateway to our community for all our visitors in the summer,” he said, adding that in that scenario “I think our only option is shutting you down for a period of time.” However, DeGood said he thought Chick-fil-A was “moving in the right direction,” adding: “You guys don’t want to fail, and we don’t want you to fail.”
Sych echoed those sentiments, saying that part of the reason Garfield Township hasn’t started issuing fines or moved to revoke the restaurant’s permit is that the township is trying to work collaboratively with Chick-fil-A to resolve its issues. “Obviously, we recognize they’re a successful business,” he said. “But at the same time, we realize that there’s some failures occurring on the site. From our standpoint, we’re trying to work toward that solution.”