It only took about 10 minutes Monday for a community meeting about a proposed In-N-Out Burger location in Novato to turn into a confrontation between company officials and folks from the neighborhood — and neighbors against neighbors.
Concerns about traffic, lighting, noise from drive-through loudspeakers, late-night hours, early morning deliveries and rowdy teens were lobbed like grenades at Kim Kennedy, an In-N-Out project manager, and Shinpei Kuo, property development manager for GHA Architecture/Development, during a standing-room only meeting at Inn Marin in Ignacio.
The scene was a flashback to Novato’s often-raucous affordable housing debates from the past year, only Double-Double Animal Style.
In the only community meeting required by city rules to take place during the process of building the restaurant at Enfrente Road and Entrada Drive, Kuo and Kennedy worked to calm fears and present facts about In-N-Outs plans. Overhead-view architectural drawings were displayed at the front of the room and passed around to attendees.
Kuo told about 75 people in attendance that there will be public meetings of the Design Review Commission and the Planning Commission before anything is approved to be built, but several neighbors — a handful quite worked up — expected to get all their answers in the 90-minute session Monday and were angry whenever the two officials could not provide an answer.
“We’re not going to be able to please everyone,” Kennedy said several times.
In-N-Out proposes to build a 3,750-square-foot restaurant and 52-space parking lot on two adjacent lots — one occupied by a closed-down car wash and one occupied by California Bay Nursery. The maximum height of the structure would be 35 feet, about the same as the nearby Dollhouses, Trains & More store, and it would be open until 1:30 a.m. The only entrance and exit would be in the cul de sac at the east end of Entrada Drive on the northern part of the property.
Several speakers expressed dismay that the nursery would be put out of business, but owner of that business and the property owner did not attend the meeting. There was speculation that the landlord is a willing seller to In-N-Out; calls placed by Novato Patch to the nursery were not returned.
Kennedy said In-N-Out is “not wishing to put anybody out of business. We’re only trying to purchase a piece of property” to move forward with creating the restaurant.
At least half the questions centered on traffic. Kuo and Kennedy repeated themselves several times when they said a traffic study done by an independent firm and paid for by In-N-Out is near completion and will include a list of expected impacts from the restaurant being built. Kennedy said In-N-Out would work with the city engineers to figure out what sound and traffic mitigation efforts would be necessary.
The two closest In-N-Outs to Novato — in Petaluma and Mill Valley — also are adjacent to Highway 101 but not as close to dwellings. The one in Mill Valley’s Strawberry Shopping Center is one of only three In-N-Outs — out of 269 — that does not have a drive-through window as per the wishes of Mill Valley residents. One man Monday night said the lack of a drive-through window at Strawberry makes the In-N-Out experience worse because of the hassles of parking there and he was glad the proposed Novato In-N-Out would have a drive-through window.
Another man who said he owned a condominium nearby was upset about the expected concentration of people and traffic on the now-dormant property and possibly lawbreakers mingling late at night. Kennedy said security officers could be hired to monitor the property 24 hours a day if it proves necessary.
“An opening might impact an area for about a week, but as far as the overall impact on an area, the good outweighs the bad,” Kennedy said. “Nobody takes care of a property like In-N-Out does. Nobody employs people and pays people like In-N-Out does.”
Without waiting for the traffic study, several neighbors guaranteed that traffic would increase in the Rafael Village and Pointe Marin areas just west of the restaurant’s proposed location and create problems getting back onto Highway 101 south of the site. They said people who want to head north after visiting the restaurant would drive west on Entrada and eventually Ignacio Boulevard or Oak Grove Drive and head back toward downtown Novato on either Sunset Parkway or Palmer Drive.
One woman received applause when she said In-N-Out’s improvements to the area would be good for Novato and be a lot better than a closed-down car wash and “not that great” nursery. Others agreed that the shuttered car wash qualifies as blight.
“Look, something else is going to get built there anyway,” one woman said. “It might as well be a professional corporation that is known for keeping things clean.”
Robert Marshall, co-owner of Inn Marin, added, “They’re going to clean up a part of our neighborhood that has looked like crap for 10 years. It’s an opportunity to have it done by professionals and they’re going to do it right.”
Kennedy explained the 1:30 a.m. closing time by saying there is a small demand for a place to go after movies get out at local theaters. The response by several residents was, fine, build it by the Century Rowland Plaza theater where there aren’t any dwellings.
Kuo said it would be up to the city to notify residents of future meetings about In-N-Out’s plans. Kennedy said he would make sure In-N-Out’s traffic engineer would be at those meetings to answer questions.