WARRENTON — Traffic congestion around Wendy’s has raised doubts about whether the city did enough to prepare for the new fast-food restaurant.
Since Wendy’s opened in April, police and city leaders have heard complaints from residents about traffic backups at the already busy Warrenton Highlands retail center.
The city agreed with a traffic study from Wendy’s that determined a new painted intersection on Ensign Lane paid for by the developers would be sufficient. But residents have complained about the design, as well as bad drivers trying to navigate the drive-thru or park near the restaurant.
“It doesn’t have a natural flow to it in the parking lot,” Police Chief Mathew Workman said. “People are getting used to it and they are getting better with it, but because you don’t have a good flow in there, you have then a poor flow to get out on the road, poor flow to get in, add the road problems to it, and that’s why people are complaining a lot.”
The city is planning to explore options to improve traffic in a region home to big-box stores and national retailers.
“I do not know if that is working or not,” Kevin Cronin, the city’s community development director, said of the painted intersection for Wendy’s. “We are going to be looking at it down the road here if it’s effective or not, and if it’s not we need to go back and look at what can be more effective.
“If it’s working properly people won’t be clogging up sitting in that intersection waiting to turn. They need to be waiting before the box before they make that turn.”
A new plan for the intersection may be costly. Wendy’s was estimated to pay $36,000 in system development charges to help offset the impact of the restaurant, however, new infrastructure improvements like an intersection redesign, turn lanes, or traffic lights would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Mayor Henry Balensifer said system development charges do not adequately capture the cost of growth.
“We’re going to start seeing that as our sewer system needs to be expanded to accommodate all this new growth,” he said. “That’s going to be a hit on all the ratepayers to do that ... how do we make that fair so that basically they’re not the ones who have to bear the cost of that?”
Balensifer said the city has had to get creative to address growing pains that have come with rapid development over the past decade.
“I think when Warrenton was starting to just get started in building there was a certain element of the commission at the time being afraid of chasing off development and I think the City Commission has a different outlook on things now,” he said.
“We’re taking a stronger stance. It’s just the problem is a lot of things were set up in a different mindset and it’s just a matter of going through and correcting those things that need to be corrected or updating with the times and seeing which ones don’t need to be, and that’s going to take a lot of time and we’re in the process of it.”
Wendy’s developers said publicly before the restaurant was built that an estimated two-thirds of customers would come through the drive-thru. The location of the drive-thru so close to the entrance and exit of the shopping center has been among the traffic issues.
Cronin said one of the updates the city has made moving forward is putting drive-thrus through a conditional use process so the city can have more negotiating power.
“Wendy’s had brought that to light,” Cronin said. “Wendy’s was kind of like the poster child for why drive-thrus need to go through a more stringent review process.”
Warrenton prides itself as being open for business, but the experience with Wendy’s, along with traffic problems after Walmart opened last year, has generated some caution.
“There’s a bit of a culture shift,” Balensifer said. “It used to be, ‘Say ‘yes’ to it, any growth is good,’ and I think we’ve realized that there are some things that just don’t belong in some areas and could be better placed somewhere else or maybe there are some impacts to neighborhoods and other places that could have been avoided and we need to avoid in the future.
“We just need to be more thoughtful about our development and have more smart growth instead of just growth for the sake of growth.”