Suttons Bay: The High Road or the Drive-Through?

by Kathy Finch

Planning Commissioner, Village of Suttons Bay

The Village of Suttons Bay is at a crossroads. The Planning Commission and Village Council finds themselves in a debate on the topic of drive-throughs: Is there a place for them in the Village…or not? There are adamant opponents to drive-throughs, just as there are steadfast supporters of the concept. Then there are also those who need this discussion to assist them in deciding the direction best taken for the whole community.

Why such a dilemma over drive-throughs? They exist almost everywhere and are common sites in our daily lives. The drive-through came into existence when America decided to design its towns for how people live — in their cars. They are very convenient when in a hurry, when it’s raining, and when people find it difficult to jump in and out of vehicles for quick stops. Lately, however, planners and people have questioned the practice of designing environments around vehicles instead of around the humans that use them.

More satisfaction is felt in areas designed for the human scale, such as neighborhoods with narrower roads, with sidewalks and trees, and with buildings and homes where the front door is more prominent and welcoming than the garage door. Today’s planning reflects this and is becoming more focused on people and the quality of life they feel in an area. Traditional Neighborhood Design, Smart Growth and Sense of Place are just a few of many buzz words used to describe this feeling. You’ll know a well-designed town, neighborhood, or plaza when you feel it, because you’ll like being there. Think of a place that you enjoy and most likely it has the elements that define the goals of today’s planners. Does that place you are thinking of feature a drive-through?

What exactly constitutes a drive-through is not being contested. It is agreed that it is any commercial use that, by way of site layout or design, encourages or permits patrons to remain in their vehicle while receiving goods or services. Obvious exemptions are service stations and car washes because their services cannot be delivered without the vehicle entering the businesses themselves.

Is Suttons Bay living in the past? Is it now being asked to catch up to reality? People use their cars — a lot. It’s a fact of life in this (and the past) century. Shouldn’t towns be designed for the way people truly live? And yet, walk through any northern small town and along with the wind through the pines you’ll hear a soft murmur of its people. Listen closer and the murmur becomes audible enough to make out the words, "don’t change, don’t change, don’t change…" You can hear that in Suttons Bay. Many residents do not want any changes, and when the inevitable changes happen, they accept them slowly and grudgingly. These are the people who speak often and loudly to the Planning Commission and the Village Council with the message, "Under – Any – Circumstances — Do – Not – Compromise – the – Character – of – This – Village!" They want their town to keep its character, to remain small. They want it to be easy and pleasant to walk to the post office and to the bank and the shops. They want the buildings to be inviting and not too big or too tall.

These same people also want Suttons Bay to have a viable economy and for business owners in town to stay in business. This is achieved when customers are served in the best possible manner. In order to satisfy and keep customers, business owners must give careful thought as to how to provide what customers want and to deliver it to them how they want it. Convenience is one of the things customers ask for.

Meanwhile, demographics show the average age of the community creeping up as more and more retirees move to the area. Businesses want to be available to these customers who may find the current pedestrian atmosphere more difficult and less inviting. At the other end of the spectrum, the young family also finds itself at a disadvantage when having to unload and reload youngsters at every stop for items such as banking and prescriptions. Area businesses, when thinking drive-through, are thinking of these customers, as well as those who appreciate convenience and have others places to go.

On the other hand, drive-through businesses require more acreage. A common argument is that fewer parking spaces are needed when you have a drive-through. This is not so. The parking requirements are the same. Enough parking has to be provided for the interior space and usage of the building, regardless of whether a drive-through lane exists on the outside. Added to the parking lot is additional paved area needed for the "stacking lanes" to keep waiting cars off area roads. Drive-throughs are designed to have enough room for vehicles to wait in line on the property so as to not block traffic on the city streets. Additional pavement is needed to provide turn around room for the vehicles as they leave the drive-through lane. This vastly increased amount of pavement serves to disconnect the human from the experience. It builds a world designed for vehicles, not humans.


True, two drive-throughs already exist inside the Suttons Bay Village limits. Both are located at banks. In the past year, the third bank doing business in town proposed a drive-through in the heart of downtown. The plan was controversial; area residents took to the streets and let their opposition be known. Some residents were opposed to any additional drive-throughs and some were only opposed to a drive-through at the proposed location. Although the bank eventually withdrew its plan, public sentiment led the Planning Commission to propose an amendment to the zoning ordinance that would prohibit all future drive-throughs in the village. The Village Council, however, voted unanimously to reject the drive-through ban. Council members said the village should be open to the possibility of drive-throughs. Meanwhile, the third bank has again submitted a site plan to the village for a branch with a drive-through, this time asking to be located a few blocks from downtown. The discussion continues.

What are other communities doing? Some large cities, like Toronto, are actually allowing fewer drive-throughs and placing more restrictions on them citing health and safety reasons. The health reasons are obvious. Exhaust fumes are detrimental to all forms of life and to the climate of the earth as a whole. That has been proven over and over. Also, it is healthier for all humans to shut off the ignition and walk, using actual muscles, into a business establishment. Safety becomes a factor when lines of cars waiting for donuts and hot coffee impede other vehicles and pedestrians alike. Toronto sees all of this and is working to change the situation.

How are businesses responding? Locally, the Sutton Bay Area Library has a delivery and pick up service for their patrons who, for whatever reason, can’t get to the library itself. Traverse City State Bank offers pick up and delivery of banking for its business customers. Area shopkeepers don’t have to tack a note on the store’s door that says "Be back in ten minutes" and lose potential customers while making yesterday’s deposit. The bank comes to the store. In other locations, many fast-food conglomerates are seeing that smaller, more efficient restaurants are more profitable than the traditional ones with drive-throughs. These smaller establishments fit better into communities and neighborhoods; they are accepted and supported by the surrounding area. This is what progressive businesses are investing in.

Just as larger communities are turning away from drive-throughs, Suttons Bay finds itself now considering whether to allow more. Suttons Bay has to be mindful of being reactive instead of being proactive. To react is to take action after the fact. To be proactive is to plan for action, in advance of changes needed.

It has been said that to compromise a strongly protected sense-of-place is to compromise the integrity of a community, that a successful community and its commerce and economy is directly related to its character, and that its standards should never be lowered. People flock to towns like Suttons Bay because of how they exist today – and today they are different that all the communities in southern Michigan that run together in their sameness. The Up North towns are walkable, inviting, and not overrun with pavement and parking lots. To take steps toward making these Up North towns function the same as those towns downstate will make them less different, and thus less attractive to those who come and spend their vacation days and retirement years within these towns. If Up North becomes the same as downstate, why would anyone ever come to Suttons Bay?

Suttons Bay can take a stand. It can stand for Character. It can stand for the belief in human interaction. It can be a welcoming community where, if you are unable to get out and about, the integrity of the community comes to your door. It takes care of you. Imagine having a human interaction as your prescriptions are delivered to your door instead of receiving them with a whoosh of stale air from a nameless pneumatic tube. Then the next knock at your door brings a stack of new books, movies and some new music the librarian thought you might enjoy. That’s a community many would choose to live in.



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