Pollo Tropical gets Variance, Barely

 

NOTE: this post was updated to correct a mistake in language confusing Pollo Tropical’s request for a parking variance and a conditional use permit. Thanks to Lila Knight for pointing that out.

Last night the Kyle Planning and Zoning Commission convened to discuss the conditional use permit application and variance request for Pollo Tropical and Taco Cabana. These two restaurants, both owned by the Fiesta Restaurant Group, are slated for construction on the NE corner of I-35 and FM1626. Their request was granted, but just barely, with a vote of 3-2.

Kyle Planning and Zoning CommissionThe main issue was the I-35 Overlay Development Standards, which are a specific set of rules to govern new developments along the I-35 corridor in Kyle. The Overlay was developed in 2010 as part of Kyle’s Comprehensive Master Plan. Pollo, according to the Overlay, must build using masonry (i.e. stone or brick) up to at least the top of the windows of their storefront. According to Pollo, this standard would infringe upon their brand, whose restaurants all have a distinctively Caribbean look and feel, most notably a shell of sea-green & blue stucco. Pollo contended that, because their property was platted for construction in 2009 — one year before the Overlay was adopted — they were exempt from the requirement. They did, however, offer to put some masonry into the facade as a sign of good faith.

This brings up a tricky situation. To be clear, both the Comprehensive Plan and the I-35 Overlay are necessary. These documents are the result of thousands of hours of specialized labor and buckets of taxpayer dollars, all designed to bring uniformity and fairness to a rapidly developing region.

My problem is not with tight policies, or granting variances, but the logic P&Z employed to levy their decision, and specifically their lack of research into the request.

The members seemed to come at the decision sideways. The approving majority bought the “branding” argument, and seemed to take Pollo’s “good faith” stone border as a workable middle ground. The dissenting minority said, “Why did we develop an Overlay if we are just going to ignore it anytime someone asks?”

Pollo Tropical brick facade
Pollo Tropical with full brick facade

Neither faction questioned the actual reasons Pollo presented at the meeting. Pollo claimed they were exempt, but were they? If the answer was yes, then the permit should have passed 5-0 without another word. Law is law. That argument was important and P&Z should have at least looked into it. Next was the branding argument. A simple Google image search reveals several Pollo storefronts in the first 50 or so images. About half were completely inconsistent with the “branding” argument. Certainly Pollo would have had a rebuttal to that inquiry. And I think a good one. But the fact that no one looked into it concerns me.

My point is that P&Z owes it to the citizens of Kyle to take these matters seriously. Do I think Pollo should have been given a conditional use permit? Absolutely. Their proposed store was consistent with the spirit of the Overlay requirements, which trumps the exemption argument. I just wished P&Z had taken the request more seriously.

One final note. I spoke to the two representatives for the development after the meeting adjourned. They were standing outside City Hall talking. I congratulated them on getting the approvals and welcomed them to Kyle. I told them how much we appreciated their investment in our community. I asked them how serious their variance request was and what would have happened if they were shot down. “We were prepared to walk out,” they told me. “It was that important to us.”

Whether that’s true or not, as Kyle continues to grow and new businesses come to town, I hope we can learn to provide a more welcoming, thoughtful approach to how we make decisions that alter the course of business development. One person — one vote — could have stopped two restaurants from coming to Kyle. And if that vote was researched and resolute, I will accept the decision. But it wasn’t. And that needs to change.