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Double-double trouble: Fast food sign orders up San Carlos grumblings

 | Published on 7/6/2011


The new In-N-Out Burger may have ordered up a batch of trouble — make that double-double trouble — with its telltale red and yellow arrow sign that its San Carlos neighbors say provides an unwelcome neon glow over their backyards and jeopardizes their property values.

The restaurant at 445 Industrial Road also continues serving up complaints about everything from traffic and delivery truck noise to greenhouse gases and the impact to the small-town feel.

Ben Fuller, president of the Greater East San Carlos neighborhood association board, sent out a mass email to its members and residents asking what they thought. Are there still concerns? Is there a valid problem behind speculative worry and second-hand accounts?

“We are not anti-progress and growth. We are very reasonable people and wanted to see if there’s truth to what we’ve been hearing,” Fuller said.

The amount of response has been significant. Although a few comments of welcome are tucked in, the majority range from those who merely want the 65-foot sign removed or lowered to those who think the city would benefit most if the outfit simply closed up shop. 

The sign is “invasive,” takes away “the character of San Carlos” and lights up the night sky like the Fourth of July, some respondents wrote. Another said she is “completely disgusted” by the size. One woman wrote that she liked the In-N-Out, which merely drew comments that she must not live in the affected area. 

The sign is directly in sight of approximately 25 homes and has some impact on around 100, particularly on Fairfield and Springfield drives, Fuller estimates.

“That is a lot of potential lost property value,” he said. “That could more than offset the sales tax the city gets.”

But city officials say not only are most of the traffic and noise worries unwarranted, the time to appeal the project’s details such as the sign height passed with nary a formal peep from residents. Furthermore, they say, any post-approval changes are now in the corporate hands of In-N-Out.

“In-N-Out is entitled to the sign so there’s not much the city can do at this point unless they want to adjust it,” said Assistant City Manager Brian Moura on the behalf of city officials. 

However, conditional use permit like that given In-N-Out allow the city to step in if there is a use problem not being rectified, said Fuller.

Specifically, the permit requires that illumination from the sign not spill on to adjacent properties.

The city is talking to Mark Noack, the project manager at In-N-Out’s Fresno office, about the questions raised by the GESC regarding the permit, Moura said. 

Carl Van Fleet, vice president of planning and development for In-N-Out, said the company hasn’t been contacted as far as he knows about the sign and that neither height nor brightness has been an issue at any other location.

“One of the reasons that the San Carlos location was attractive to us was the proximity to the freeway and the fact that we would have the ability to let freeway travelers know that we are there,” Van Fleet wrote in an email.


Some like it, some don’t

To be fair, Fuller said, the residents were pretty well informed by the city along the way and knew a large sign was coming even if they didn’t like it. Fuller said he also knows not every worry voiced by individual residents is shared by others in the group, such as greenhouse gases or the debate of independent versus big businesses in town.

While the In-N-Out was a welcome addition to the Peninsula by burger aficionados and city officials hungering for new revenue, the sale of the vacant lot for a new locale was met with dislike by some residents long before the idea translated into an agreement or a blueprint.

At Planning Commission and City Council meetings, speakers — many who are among those still unhappy — talked about the arrival of more traffic snarls at the already challenging intersection of Holly Street and Industrial Boulevard as cars move on and off of Highway 101. Some wondered about a perpetual smell of burgers and fries, which led In-N-Out to make the San Carlos outlet the first in the nation with air scrubbers to squelch any outside aroma. Others wondered if crowds, particularly of young people, would create noise and crime. In-N-Out hired an extra sheriff’s deputy out of its own pocket.

Still others had a problem that the company was in no position to solve short of not opening — they said that a franchise was not what they wanted at the gateway of the City of Good Living.

Regardless, the city sold the plot for approximately $1.6 million — money it later decided to put toward redevelopment of Wheeler Plaza near downtown — and the company broke ground in January for the 3,654-square-foot restaurant and 46-space parking lot.

In-N-Out took its first order June 16. 

In the beginning, there were admittedly kinks. Fuller said his girlfriend joked they could place an order, return to his backyard and know when the food was ready because the announcements were so loud. 

The issue was resolved relatively quickly though, said both Fuller and Greg Rothaus, Sheriff’s Office San Carlos bureau captain.


‘It’s pretty well designed’

Despite the first days of long queues, particularly during the inaugural lunch rushes, traffic has been much less than Rothaus even anticipated. 

“It thought it was going to be worse than it was based on what I saw at other In-N-Outs,” he said. “Ours is busy, but it’s pretty well designed.” 

Despite concerns of backed-up traffic, Rothaus said he’s not getting reports of queued cars to turn on Holly Street and Industrial Road.

Volume will also continue to drop from the initial rush if the San Carlos locale follows patterns of other new restaurants, Van Fleet said.

The deputy stationed at the restaurant was also a nice addition but no longer needed now that the initial rush is past, Rothaus said.

“All in all, we don’t have any problems and I’m not getting any complaints,” he said.

Like many in the city, Rothaus believes the opposition to In-N-Out is a matter of growing pains while it makes itself at home and those who refuse to admit it isn’t terrible.

“I think there’s a contingent that didn’t want them in and are looking for things to happen,” Rothaus said.

But Fuller said that’s exactly why he asked, to document if there are actual issues. Although traffic and noise may be more anecdotal than actual right now, Fuller said there is little doubt the sign is a valid point of contention particularly for those on Fairfield Drive where the large arrow has become part of the view.

GESC residents worried about the sign exemption prior to its approval but decided not to appeal, Fuller said.

With the transit village and potentially sun-blocking wall in the future, the GESC community opted to pick its battles, he said. They didn’t want to be the group that opposes everything.

The cost to appeal is also hefty.


Bright lights, little city

Some respondents to Fuller’s inquiry also said they didn’t know how bad it would be until the sign was erected and illuminated. The sign is required to be turned off when business ends at 1 a.m.

Even without the glow, some say they just don’t want it looming in the skyline.

Some question exists on whether the sign was made taller than the city allowed to provide better direction for highway drivers or to surpass the tall eucalyptus trees surrounding it.

If the issue is the trees, Fuller said he and others choose to sacrifice them to lower the sign. He also suggested lowering light bulb wattage or installing a screen to the sign, allowing it to be seen from the freeway but not the neighborhood.

In-N-Out will do its best to be good neighbors through traffic and trash controls, Van Fleet said, although he did not specifically address the potential of altering the sign. 

While the new addition to the city may be drawing a lot of response on both ends of the spectrum, it is not the first to mixed public feedback.

The Garden Hacienda building across from City Hall was criticized by some while lauded by others, Moura said. 

The same goes for the San Carlos Marketplace on Industrial Road with a configuration and parking that drives some visitors batty while others cheer for the T.J. Maxx and Best Buy.

“Some say they don’t like it. Some say it’s the best thing we ever did,” Moura said. “I guess some people will never be happy. Maybe that’s what’s happening now with In-N-Out.”