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Mighty Taco wins drive-thru privilege in East Aurora

After three hours of deliberating at Village Hall, Buffalo’s home-grown fast-food taco chain won a mighty victory:

Mighty Taco will be the first to get around East Aurora’s decade-old ban on drive-thru restaurants.

The reprieve for the purveyor of “Buffito” chicken burritos followed the Zoning Board of Appeals’ 4-to-1 vote last month in favor of a variance.

The proposed move from its current spot on the Grey Street plaza sidewalk to a new drive-thru at a vacant tire store nearby fueled a simmering debate in the village where Elbert Hubbard founded his Roycroft furniture and printing business a century ago: How much old-fashionedness should be law in this quaint village?

Outgoing Village Trustee Randy West lobbied hard against letting in another drive-thru. The only ones in the village, at Tim Hortons and McDonald’s, both were grandfathered in.

“I don’t believe that we need them here,” West said. “They’re contradictory to the stated objective of the village to be pedestrian-friendly.”

It’s been more than a decade since the Tim Hortons drive-thru opened on Buffalo Street. Morning commuter coffee traffic jams followed. Soon the drive-thru ban joined East Aurora’s collection of distinguishing characteristics.

In this village, even Mighty Taco isn’t its usual nondescript fast-food self. The village branch of the 24-store chain has lanterns on the walls and a stern Hubbard portrait by the door. But regulars like Larry Anderson longed for it to be a drive-thru.

“That’s what I wanted from the beginning … It’s just more convenient,” Anderson said, as he let his Chrysler sedan idle in the no-parking zone while he waited at the counter for his chicken burrito with hot sauce, lettuce and no tomato.

“I’m pretty much a fan of anything that doesn’t involve vegetables,” he said.

John Spooner, chairman of the Zoning Board, studied the matter carefully before his March 24 vote with the majority. He spent two hours at the plaza watching people come and go from his parked car.

Lots of people left their motors running as they went in for take-out. No one walked on a pedestrian path near the tire store and the main plaza.

From what he could see, the proposed drive-thru would fit its setting, which is one variance requirement.

“We don’t think it’s going to change the character of the neighborhood,” Spooner said.

Plaza owner Benderson Development also made the case for other variance criteria at the hearing: financial hardship in a unique situation the petitioner didn’t create.

Simply, the Grey Street plaza doesn’t make enough money.

The developer bought the shopping area for $5 million in 1995. It brings in about $200,000 a year, said Spooner who reviewed the Benderson numbers. That’s $300,000 less than the industry norm of 10 percent on an investment, the developer told the board. Revenues should be closer to $500,000, it said. Rent on the drive-thru is expected to bring in an extra $10,000 a year, Benderson told the board.

West doubted that would be enough of a solution. “They’re not fixing their $300,000 problem,” he said.

The board’s March vote was West’s second big loss last month. He lost his bid for re-election by a single vote – 156 to 155 – to a man with an opposite, pro-drive-thru perspective.

“By far, the greater defeat was Mighty Taco,” said West, who intends to park and walk to get his preferred “two super Mightys, hot, sour cream, beef on a white shell.”

More drive-thrus, like Mighty Taco’s, could divert people away from the Tim Hortons bottleneck. “By limiting them, you’re just making the traffic situation even worse,” said Raymond Byrnes, who will take over West’s seat on the board Monday.

During the campaign, Byrnes said the village needs to do a better job collaborating with other government entities, like the schools.

He disagreed with the village’s decision last fall to hire a lawyer to fight the digital sign installed on the Middle School’s Main Street lawn. Internally lit electric signs are banned in the historic downtown district.

Spending $36,000 so far in a lawsuit about a $55,000 sign seems like a waste. “The village taxpayer is going to lose,” he said.

What’s more, businesses like Tim Hortons, not village laws, should take care of traffic jams. “They should be out there directing traffic,” Byrnes said.

Williamsville Mayor Brian Kulpa wouldn’t mind more quibbles over things like this in his village, known for thick Main Street traffic.

Last fall, it enacted a drive-thru ban of its own.

“There’s a place for them in the world, but at village centers, they eat too much real estate,” said Kulpa, who wrote a letter in support of East Aurora’s ban. “They cause undo noise and standing-car air pollution.”

Persnickety debates speak to East Aurora’s sophisticated sense of self, he said.

“They’ve evolved to a point, as a village center, that they’re having discussions to that level of detail. Other communities couldn’t even dream of that. They understand who they are,” Kulpa said of East Aurora. “I think there’s something noble to having those actual details as discussion points.”

Michael Croft, a member of the East Aurora Zoning Board, agrees. People argue because they love living in the village, where old clapboard houses still line Main Street and people know each other.

“They want to make sure it’s not lost,” said Croft, who worries about drive-thru traffic and cast the lone dissenting vote on the Zoning Board.

Once the drive-thru is up, he intends to park his car and walk in to order his favorite soft shell tacos without sour cream and light, mild hot sauce.

He’s been a longtime Mighty Taco fan.

When he married, his brother made wedding favors for the guests with ballpoint pen inscriptions – “Michael and Susan, 7-9-83” – on a collection of free Mighty Taco matchbooks a clerk gave them for the occasion.

“It shows my vote can’t be bought,” Croft said in jest.

email: mkearns@buffnews.com