A Drive-Thru Window Saved His Business, but Now He’s Being Forced To Shut It Down

Robert Balitierrez was able to open a window after his restaurant closed due to public health regulations. Now city zoning officials have also closed that door.

Balitierrez, a Mexican restaurant owner and operator of Taco Boy in Mt. Pleasant for the last 13 years. Pleasant, Michigan. When the pandemic hit in 2020, Taco Boy—like all food and drink establishments in Michigan—was required by the state to shut down the dining room that brought in almost all its revenue.

In response, Balitierrez decided to open up a dormant drive-thru window that had come with the building and had been used by its previous occupants—a pharmacy and a restaurant. The takeaway business Taco Boy (a 50-year old company Balitierrez had inherited from his dad) was able to continue its operations during COVID-19’s worst.

For a period, it was uncontroversial. But, in late 2013, city officials informed Balitierrez, that Mt. Pleasant’s zoning codes.

Nearby businesses also have drive-thrus. The city admits that Balitierrez’s drive-thru window causes no traffic or noise impacts. However, it has been ordered to close.

“Without [the drive-thru]I have no idea if I’d be able. Some employees would need to be let go. It’s gonna hurt,” Balitierrez tells Reason.

According to him, his drive-thru contributed about 20% of his last year’s sales and is still a substantial part of his business.

Mt. Pleasant’s Zoning Code, which is mandated under state law, requires drive-thrus to have 200 feet minimum stacking space. That’s the maximum number of cars that can fit through the drive-thru. It also must not hinder the vehicles’ on-site movements or allow for access from the street.

Staff at Taco Boy say that the 200 foot extension runs into Taco Boy parking lot and interferes with vehicles moving on site. Therefore, it has to be taken down.

Balitierrez claims that he has been singled out because neighboring businesses have drive-thrus that don’t meet code and are permitted to continue operating unassisted. His drive-thru isn’t causing any problems for nearby property owners, he claims.

This is the point that Balitierrez agrees with. Staff from the city prepared a report about Balitierrez’s drive thru. The report noted “no complaints regarding traffic going to or leaving the site, or any issues related to noise with adjacent properties.”

Brian Kench (a Mt. The Pleasant City government.

Kench tells ReasonNonconforming drives-thrus will be grandfathered in to the stacking space requirements as long they have been continuously operating since the regulations came into force.

Kench states that if they stop operating for more than a year, the building would need to conform with current zoning regulations. The new rules will apply to Balitierrez’s drive thru, which has been closed for more than a decade.

Balitierrez, who wanted to allow his drive-thru, applied last month for a zone variance. His application states that he had always believed that the drive-thru window would be permissible because it was used by previous owners.

He said that Taco Boy does not have sufficient cars for 200 feet of stacking room, except during the Cinco de Mayo rush.

Mt. Pleasant’s Zoning Board of Appeals voted unanimously against Balitierrez’s December 15th request for a variance.

Kench states that there are only a handful of narrow criteria that could have permitted the board to approve a variance. These include the physical shape and topography of the property. Kench says that Balitierrez did not meet these criteria and his argument about economic hardship was insufficient.

It will certainly have an impact. But, I remind you that he has been operating without it for many years. Kench states that it can’t be general enough to make you want 200 feet worth of stacking space.

Balitierrez, who had his variance request denied by the zoning board has the option to petition the circuit court for hearing his case. Balitierrez is now considering this possibility.

Kench suggests that Balitierrez considers other ways to store his takeout restaurant, such as designated parking spots for customers who are waiting to place orders or partnering up with delivery apps companies. He also recommends reconfiguring his back lot so there is 200-foot stacking space.

Balitierrez maintains that closing the window is a costly decision. He also claims that $10,000 was spent on other codes issues. This could be a threat to his business.

This is my lifeline. “This is my livelihood,” he said. A small, independent business can take a huge hit like this and it is difficult to stay afloat.