Mountain View Voice

Opinion - July 6, 2012

Viewpoint: Neighbors prevail in car wash dispute

The City Council's decision to turn down what appeared to be a well-reasoned and heavily researched recommendation to issue a permit for a new car wash at the busy Shell gas station at El Camino Real and Shoreline Boulevard last week is a good example of how strong and well-articulated neighborhood concerns can influence a major zoning decision.

In this case, the council was swayed by neighbors' fears that noise from the drive-through car wash would impact homes, including one only 23 feet away from the machinery that would wash and dry the cars. City planners recommended approval of the project, citing multiple efforts by the station's owner to muffle the sound, including a new seven-foot masonry wall on the property line next to the car wash.

But in comments sent to the city and at the hearing, neighbors said they were not convinced that the loudest components of the car wash could meet the requirement to limit noise to 55 decibels during the day and 50 decibels at night, the levels permitted for stationary equipment by the city. Council members directed extensive questions to the engineer who conducted and wrote the sound impact study. But in the end, members gave more credence to another engineer, Bob Marshak, who said he lived right behind the proposed project. Marshak said even at the same decibel level, "the human ear perceives noise differently at different frequencies. There's none of that in the study."

The neighbors' cause was also helped along by the scope of the project, which proposed adding 400 square feet to a rebuilt convenience store, and building a new canopy with six pumping stations (with two pumps each). The current service bays on the nearly one-acre property would be removed and replaced with a small air, water and vacuum station. The new convenience store would be open for 24 hours a day, bringing a sharp comment from council member Laura Macias, who called it the size of an interstate truck stop.

"Truck stops work on I-5, she said, referring to the interstate freeway. "This isn't I-5."

And although planners noted that two other gas stations in the city include car washes, one person at the meeting questioned the need for a drive-through car wash, when the city already has 10 car washes and 26 drive-throughs, including pharmacies.

The council's decision earlier this year to ban drive-through access for all types of businesses along El Camino Real due to health and safety reasons also helped the neighbors' cause. The decision forced out a proposed Chick-Fil-A restaurant at 1962 W. El Camino Real, and now the company has decided to locate a store in Sunnyvale.

In the end, the neighbors prevailed despite a last-minute offer by the gas station's owner to modify parts of the project. But although the council denied the project, members did offer to consider it again if modifications were made.

But even a scaled down plan is not likely to convince neighbors, who do not believe they should be forced to live with the additional impacts from a gas station that simply wants to squeeze a car wash next to their property line, as well as a larger, 24-hour convenience store.

The council rightfully decided that neighborhood values trump a much more intense development of an adjoining property. Perhaps the Shell station owners will find a way to scale back their proposal and build a car wash farther away from neighboring property owners. That is a project that the neighbors might accept.

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