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East Aurora sets an example of flexibility

John Spooner has seen a lot of hot discussion in his 36 years on the East Aurora Zoning Board of Appeals.

No kidding.

There’s little that is more personal in village government than neighbors fencing over property lines.

“We’ve had some hearings that have been hot and heavy because they’re next-door neighbors,” said Spooner, a retired printer who has devoted more than three decades to village service.

In all those years, though, Spooner only remembers reporters showing up two or three times. “Nobody comes to the Zoning Board meetings unless it’s a next-door neighbor,” Spooner said.

That is, unless you’re talking Mighty Taco. The local burrito chain best known for its Super Mighty wanted a drive-thru, and it wanted it in a village that a decade ago took one look at the line of cars outside Tim Hortons and said “no thanks” to more.

So it was noteworthy when Benderson Development got special permission from the Zoning Board to bypass a village ban on restaurant drive-thrus last month for a planned move by Mighty Taco across a shopping plaza to a vacant tire store.

In many communities, this would have been just another plan in need of a rubber stamp.

In East Aurora, it prompted a bit of soul-searching.

This, after all, is a village that got national attention for keeping Walmart out. It’s a village known for fastidious codes that have helped protect its Main Street charm. It’s a village with a distinct sense of what it means to grow within its historical roots.

The decision did not come easily.

There was a 3-hour hearing. There was a request for more traffic and financial information. And finally, after showing it could meet the criteria for an exemption to the restaurant drive-thru ban, Benderson won its variance.

All that discussion prompted some outsiders to wonder why there was so much hand-wringing over a fast-food feature that many suburban communities have accepted as inevitable.

With its ban on restaurant drive-thrus and pushback on big-box retail, East Aurora can seem like an anachronism. Here’s the thing: It works.

The village’s high standards haven’t left it devoid of development. Instead, it’s a village with a thriving Main Street that community planners look at with envy.

But the Mighty Taco debate showed another side of why East Aurora’s planning philosophy works. There is flexibility when logic and reason show it’s needed.

This is exactly how good community planning should look – thoughtful, deliberative, firm, yet willing to consider that there may be cases where a one-size-fits-all ban doesn’t fit.

Members of the Zoning Board spend their nights talking zoning codes in Village Hall because they love their community. They do their homework. They do not make decisions lightly.

“I feel very deeply about this community,” said Spooner, whose family once owned the local newspaper and who traces his East Aurora roots back to 1798. “Always have, always will.”

Adding a drive-thru to a vacant tire store located in a shopping plaza parking lot isn’t going to turn the village into Niagara Falls Boulevard.

But it was worth the Super Mighty-size discussion that village residents had over the plan.

Leave the haste to fast food. Shaping the future of a village takes time.