Executives from major fast-food corporations, the zoning attorneys who represent them and developers who would like to sell land to them came to the Prince George's County Council this week to protest a proposed ordinance restricting new fast-food restaurants in the country.
At a public hearing on a zoning ordinance that would require a special exception to build a fast-food or drive-in restaurant in commercial zones, representatives of Marriott, Burger King, McDonald's and Arby's expressed strong opposition to the bill.
"While it may not be intended, this will eliminate fast-food restaurants in the county," Thomas J. Feeney told the council. Feeney, vice president of TPS Corp. and Towbrock Corp., which own Burger King, charged that the legislation was created by people "who have a dislike of fast food. There has been a change in eating habits in this country, which has demonstrated a need for and a desire for the fast-food operation." The legislation, sponsored by Council Member Samuel Bogley, is companion to a bill that already has been approved by the council. That bill restricts the county's ability to approve water and sewer hookups for several classes of "water-deficient users" who already have proper zoning, including fast-food restaurants.
The proposed ordinance requires developers who want to build a fast-food restaurant in a commercial area to apply for a special exception. Because of restrictions, including a requirement that the restaurant be at least 200 feet from adjacent residential property, the council can deny any exception should the location "adversely affect the occupants of buildings" nearby or "upset the balance of land usage in the area."
"We just have to get a handle on this," Bogley said of the proliferation of fast-food restaurants in the county, specifically on Rte. 1 from College Park to Laurel and on Rte. 450.
Bogley said the proliferation was the result of "people who were caught in the squeeze" of a moratorium on sewer hookups who, since the moratarium was lifted, wanted to sell their land quickly and "make a profit as quickly as they can. Here is the way to do it (by selling to fast-food firms)."
Several speakers defended the landowners' right to do just that as they spoke in behalf of the "economic benefit of the fast-food operation."
Robert Manzi, a zoning attorney who represents fast-food operators in the county, said those "benefits come from income taxes, sale taxes. They are clean operations and serve a better product, police themselves better and have parking lots better than most grocery stores.
"Fast-food stores are not noxiousl; they are not obnoxious."
Feeney, who mentioned that the founder of his company has been awarded citations for improvements for the physically handicapped and for philanthropy in Italy, told the council that the people in his firm thought of themselves as "rather decent citizens."
"We have taken (land) sites of very little use and returned them to the tax rolls," he said. "What kind of villains are we anyway?
"We are aware of the serious responsibility you have; we are aware of the need for sensible zoning. But there is not need to put a zinger on top of the commercial zoning already required."
Feeney, Manzi and others told the council that the "absence of public support" for the bill supported their claims that county residents want fast-food restaurants.
Council Member Parris Glendening, a co-sponsor of the bill and sponsor of earlier fast-food legislation, told them, "The Public does not have paid lobbyists and representatives or attorneys who can speak for a zoning bill."
Bogley admitted after the hearing, however, that "they really did a job on us." He said he was going to consult with other council members before bringing the bill to a final vote.
"These people are couching their opposition in terms of 'small businessmen,'" he said. "These aren't small businessmen; they are big corporations. They don't pay minimum wage and their product is questionable. They are throwing out all these trigger words like 'new quality.'
"At this time of year, at this time (before elections), this kind of opposition to the bill in general will have a most significant impact (on the council)."