Benedetti car wash is headed to Sebastopol Avenue

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, Sonoma West Times & News, March 17, 2021

benedetti car wash

The location plan for Benedetti Tire Service & Express Lube and the proposed car wash. (Courtesy city of Sebastopol)

The Sebastopol City Council gave the highly debated Benedetti car wash the greenlight after nearly three hours of discussion at its extended March 2 public hearing and deliberation.

Mark Reece, owner of Benedetti Tire Service & Express Lube, first applied to open the automated car wash next to his existing business on Sebastopol Avenue in 2019, according to the staff report.

The project team can apply for a building permit and start construction upon approval of design review and tree removal permit applications by the Design Review Board (DRB) and the Tree Board, which is the same entity, according to Planning Director Kari Svanstrom in a March 16 interview.

As the project’s lead architect, Councilmember Patrick Slayter excused himself from the decision-making, so the remaining council members granted the proposed car wash its wings, or perhaps its wheels, with a 4-0 vote. This vote overrides the planning commission’s previous recommendation that the council deny its application.

Because Reece’s applications involve a subdivision of land, almost all of the project’s approval rested in the council’s hands rather than the planning commission, according to Svanstrom.

The city council approved the project’s applications for a variance, a tentative parcel map, a conditional use permit with multiple revised conditions and the project’s mitigated negative declaration to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Council sets revised conditions

The council, city staff and Reece’s project team revised some conditions for the project over the course of the meeting to address concerns about potential noise impacts, water overspray and landscaping stemming from previous public comment, council discussion and the planning commission.

The final conditions for approval include reduced weekend hours of operation and a sound barrier intended to be 10-feet tall on the car wash exit drive’s east and north side, according to the staff report.

By the meeting’s end, the council also required that the operation use only fragrance-free cleaning solution and submit biennial reports monitoring noise levels, water overspray and water usage.

“We’re open to all of your considerations and what you guys are looking for. We want to be a good neighbor, we want this project to work. We know it can work, we just need to go ahead,” Reece said.

If the car wash slips out of compliance with the city’s noise ordinance or the project’s requirement to reuse 80% of the water from its operation, the applicant must take measures to return to compliance “to the satisfaction of the planning director,” contract planner David Hogan said.

The revised conditions state the applicant is required to submit the number of vehicles washed to the city’s planning director every two years for the city to calculate its 80% water reuse adherence.

One especially complicated condition set was to establish a landscape buffer between the car wash and a southern sidewalk location for a five-foot-wide public sidewalk that does not exist yet. The project is required to supply an easement for the sidewalk along the southern property line to accommodate the city’s future extension of Abbott Avenue, Svanstrom said in a March 16 interview.

Vice Mayor Sarah Glade Gurney said she wanted to ensure a landscape buffer that would be easy on the eyes and protect and separate pedestrians from cars queuing up in the driveway for the car wash.

The council ultimately agreed to allow the DRB to further elaborate on the landscape buffer. Reece won’t be required to construct the sidewalk that will likely be built when the rest of the road is constructed, Svanstrom said.

While some of the project’s professed environmental commitments aren’t listed in the final conditions, the planning director said the applicant is required to conform to the car wash’s official description, which she said includes details provided at the Jan. 5 public hearing.

At the Jan. 5 public hearing meeting, Reece said the project would use green-certified cleaning fluids that are biodegradable, in addition to using five gallons of water or less to wash each vehicle, with water runoff filtered and reused to pre-wash the next vehicle.

The city already requires new commercial buildings to use solar power, so the Benedetti car wash did not need an explicit condition to incorporate solar panels, Svanstrom said.

Continued public hearing draws opposition

While the Jan. 5 public hearing drew numerous supporters and opponents, most community members participating in the March 2 public hearing were against the project, citing concerns about potential impact on the Chimera Arts and Maker Space next door, the environment and inconsistency with the city’s general plan and the planning commission’s advisement.

“This is a glaring land-use conflict waiting for a problem,” said Huck Hensley, who owns the former Ford Garage building that hosts Chimera Arts & Maker Space.

“The Parcel 3 is over a half-acre,” he said. “There’s no need for the noisiest portion of that to be squarely aimed at Chimera. The impact is probably going to put Chimera out of the city.”

planning commissioner Paul Fritz opposed the project particularly for its application for a variance to the downtown core’s required floor area ratio (FAR). Fritz said he was the very individual to propose the district’s FAR to keep low-density, suburban-like development like the Benedetti car wash out of downtown.

“We’ve been talking for years about creating a more walkable, pedestrian and bike-friendly environment and I’ve been working for a long time to support that goal. This variance request flies in the face of that. It’s a big deal to grant a variance request and it should only be done in extraordinary circumstances,” he said.

Both Hensley and Fritz said it was strange to consider approving the auto-service project the same evening the council endorsed the Climate-Safe California campaign.

Next, Tania Chatila who works in the neighboring Ford building said, “I think what strikes me most and is most frustrating about this issue is what feels like the complete lack of regard for the planning commission’s recommendations on this proposed car wash.”

She recounted that the planning commission had previously voted 6-1 to recommend denial of the project’s applications. “So it just makes me question really the legitimacy of this project, this entire process and I still honestly can’t help but wonder if this project was always destined to be approved because of now former-mayor Patrick Slayter’s position as a lead architect for the car wash,” Chatila said.

As the lead architect, Slayter had recused himself and was not present for the duration of the Benedetti car wash agenda item.

There were a couple supporters of the project who spoke during the public hearing.

“I’m in favor of this car wash because my electric vehicle gets dirty,” said community member Laura Goldman. “I already get my tires at Benedetti and I walk everywhere, but sometimes I need to drive. And that part of Sebastopol is the perfect place to have a quiet, environmentally-friendly established business car wash, so I heartily endorse you saying yes to this project.”

Another commenter said the project’s opponents seemed to “grasp at any straw” to criticize the project that reuses much of its water, whereas washing a car in one’s driveway requires large amounts of water and sends soap into the sewer system.

He described the neighbors as greedy for not wanting the car wash next door and said he spends money downtown at Hopmonk or getting lunch or shopping at CVS when he gets his car worked on at the Benedetti business.

The council members themselves wrestled with the decision to support the car wash considering the arguments for and against its alignment with the city’s general plan.

The city staff’s resolution for the project’s approval put forward that the Benedetti car wash aligns with numerous general plan policies as an existing local, environmentally-conscious business providing auto-services to the city and west county.

Although Hogan said the project meets the vision for development at an in-fill location contiguous with another development, a standing critique voiced in the public hearings was that the car wash caters to automotive services and clashes with the city’s vision for a more mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly downtown.

“Well, this is hard. I mean, there’s not a lot of enthusiasm here, which I think demonstrates our struggle with that vision in the general plan and the on-the-ground possibilities,” Gurney said during the council’s discussion to revise conditions.

She said, “I think we’re in this situation because we have a vision and a dream that we don’t market. What we do is we wait (for an application to come in).”

The vice mayor said proactively communicating the city’s aspirations worked in the past to inform potential applicants that might have a project to match. “I think to get our vision, we’re going to have to dream it out loud and market for it because it’s not just going to walk into our application process.”

Gurney acknowledged the council’s efforts to get the Benedetti car wash to uphold the vision for the area, while also noting Reece is a highly respected community member.

This article was produced by Sonoma West Times & News, the hometown newspaper of Sebastopol and west county since 1889. See more news at sonomawest.com