It did not go well for McDonald’s.
One by one, residents on the call, most of whom live within a half-mile of the proposed site, informed the McDonald’s spokespersons of their adamant opposition to the drive-thru plan, vigorously pushing back when the spokespersons sought to minimize their concerns.
The reasons behind the residents’ disapproval were the familiar ones to observers aware of the attendant problems associated with fast-food drive-thrus in American residential communities: (a) disturbingly enhanced noise and traffic that have made life miserable for nearby residents who suddenly encounter the reality of their daytime peace invaded, their commutes lengthened, and their late-night sleep compromised (some have spoken bitterly of futile attempts to ward off the maddening new noise by installing special glass); (b) strewn garbage in and around the drive-thrus; (c) late-hour loitering and vandalism; and (d) additional traffic accidents.
Our community has been down this road before with the McDonald’s Corporation. In 2002, the corporation sought to build a drive-thru in proximity to the same shopping center, only to see its proposal fail to get off the ground following an intense backlash.
The residents on the zoom call made no effort to hide their frustrations with the McDonald’s spokespersons’ mix of carefully hedged assurances and sunny pledges. The patience of one resident finally frayed: “You are dismissing the people who are already living here.”
It went downhill from there for McDonald’s. More than ninety percent of listeners expressed their opposition to the plan.
In politics, such numbers are generally fatal, the kind of damning feedback that typically makes politicians realize that a proposal is dead on arrival, or ought to be.
Which begs the question: Why are we still having a debate on this matter when the opposition among residents and grassroots activists to the McDonald’s drive-thru proposal is so one-sided and emphatic? (The Sully District Council of Citizen Associations added its voice this past week, voting to deny its support for the McDonald’s plan.) Why haven’t those holding the power that matters most here, particularly Fairfax County bureaucrats and current members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (who will ultimately decide the proposed drive-thru’s fate), already signaled to McDonald’s executives that their proposal is going nowhere with residents and ought to be quietly buried?
The reason is simple. Three power players have kept McDonald’s drive-thru prospects alive in our community. The first is the mammoth Chicago-based McDonald’s Corporation itself. It employs the second power player, McGuireWoods, a U.S.-based international law firm, whose attorneys in this matter come from its Tysons, Virginia location.
In her silence to this point on the issue, the third power player is our local Fairfax County supervisor Kathy Smith, a developer-friendly politician who has seemingly met few development projects she doesn’t love. As the chairman of the Board of Supervisors’ powerful Land Use Policy Committee, Smith has acquired a reputation over the years for assiduously staying out of touch with groups of residents impacted by and alarmed over controversial local development projects. Her Me Alone style and unchecked power mean that nowadays she is essentially a decision-making board of One, with her pronouncements on development issues regularly rubber-stamped by her colleagues on the Board of Supervisors. It’s anyone’s guess how Smith will ultimately come down on the drive-thru controversy – though, given her past, residents believe they have ample reason to be concerned.
Meanwhile, residents have asked several pointed questions that revolve around the basic perception of McDonald’s greed here – and that, ultimately, are reducible to a pair of questions: How many restaurants should McDonald’s (or any other fast-food chain) be permitted to build in a community? When does someone in local governance finally work up the principled courage to say to the fast-food giant and Kathy Smith, Enough is enough. McDonald’s already has a drive-thru restaurant near the intersection of Route 28 and Route 29, in Centreville. It has another one, less than a five-minute drive away, off the Willard Avenue exit of Route 28. And, finally, there is a McDonald’s restaurant in our own shopping center at Stone and Braddock Roads. Enough.
As our local supervisor, Smith has a duty to heed the will of our community. It is vital, in the coming days and weeks, that we remind her of the level and intensity of our opposition to the McDonald’s drive-thru plan.
Michael Leahy is a former staff writer for the Washington Post and a Centreville resident