An existing car wash in downtown Santa Maria can undertake a rebuilding project, the Santa Maria City Council decided Tuesday, although the owners’ architect questioned whether the city’s permitting process would make it too costly to complete.
Greg and Sheri Jordan, owners of the existing car wash on East Chapel Street, sought permission to rebuild the facility, which city officials said is a legal non-conforming use under the Downtown Specific Plan and a previous plan for the area.
To accommodate the car wash remodel, staff recommended amending the Downtown Specific Plan and requiring a conditional use permit to ensure the project remains compatible with the neighborhood.
But that requirement, instead of a more basic building permit, prompted concerns that the existing business was being treated like it was new.
“I guess I have a difficult time — this is an existing business,” Mayor Alice Patino said. “They want to make it look better, they want to make it look pleasing, but we’ve got rules that say you really can’t do that. I have a problem with that.”
The fact the car wash is located in the downtown area, not a commercial district like another car wash on North Broadway, is what makes the issue more complex, according to Appel.
“It’s the location that’s causing the heartburn. It’s only because of the location that we’re having this whole discussion,” Appel said.
The council vote 3-1 to approve the first reading of an ordinance creating Downtown Specific Plan amendment allowing the car wash with a conditional use permit. Patino cast the lone opposition vote. Councilman Willie Green was absent.
Before the vote, the project’s architect, Tom Martinez, expressed concerns that the conditions and fees required under the permit would make the process too burdensome.
“This isn’t a huge moneymaker for them,” Martinez said.
Community Development Director Larry Appel estimated the conditional use permit fees would cost more than $3,800. But he didn’t know what developer fees might be required, adding he suggested the car wash owners meet with staff for a pre-application review.
“My guess, in looking at this, is because it’s an existing building that is going to just basically replace itself close to the same footprint, I’d guess a lot of these fees would be waived,” Appel said. “Until we’re asked, we’ll just have to guess on that.”
Appel said he offered a pre-application meeting so various city departments could spell out what developer fees and conditions would be required.
“The thing we want to avoid … is we’re trying to give them all the information before they make a decision. Once you start tearing that thing down they’re committed and we want to make sure they aren’t surprised part way through the project that something else has to be done,” Appel said.
Martinez also questioned if a noise study or fencing — “this is a pretty good-sized piece of property — would be required under the permit as have been required at other car washes in town.
“My concern is those conditions will kill the project,” Martinez said.
Appel said a noise study wouldn’t necessarily be required since most modern equipment automatically is quieter than older items that would be replaced.
Asked if the existing project could be grandfathered in, city staff said the council must be consistent with the Downtown Specific Plan and zoning code.
“We’ve come up with what we believe is a fair fix — something that we can do in the future with any other project that might have the same type of a problem — but there’s no way the zoning code allows for us to just say it’s grandfathered, therefore can you just let it be a building permit. It doesn’t work that way,” Appel said.
The zoning ordinance has specific language prohibiting grandfathering in non-conforming uses and doing so could set a precedent, Appel said.
City Attorney Gil Trujillo noted that conditional use permits can be appealed to the City Council if the applicant feels staff included unreasonable requirements.
Martinez said that if he and the Jordans can meet with city officials in the next week it would give a good indication of what conditions would be placed on the project.
“Again, that’s my biggest fear is if those requirements are truly what we’ve been looking at, almost treating us as if it’s a new building which is typically what the CUP does, this project wouldn’t happen,” Martinez said.
The car wash built in the 1960s has quonset huts for bays and sits near a three-story office building. The renovation project would occur in winter to reduce the impact on the business.
Also Tuesday night, the council agreed to a staff proposal to implement new rules limiting the size of personal belongings that customers can take into the Santa Maria Public Library, essentially restricting items to anything that can fit under a chair.
The council also agreed to implement a one-strike rule for library customers who commit serious offenses, such as hitting another patron or sexually harassing staff. Current rules essentially give three chances before a person is issued a letter banning them from the library.
The new rules will take effect in mid-September.