The Santa Maria City Council took the first step toward establishing an ordinance that would regulate mobile car washes in the city, spurred by concerns about car wash pollution and a general lack of city oversight in comparison to brick-and-mortar competitors.

The ordinance, first presented to the city in summer 2020 and brought back on Tuesday after nine months of outreach, would ban mobile car washers from operating on city streets and establish requirements for properly containing and disposing of water runoff.

Council members approved a first reading of the ordinance on a 4-1 vote, with Councilman Mike Cordero dissenting. The ordinance will come back for final approval on April 6.

"The goal … is to have mobile commercial washers to return to being mobile," Code Enforcement Supervisor Joy Castaing said. "The ordinance is also designed to help prevent stormwater pollution and damage to city property, with common sense guidelines rather than having ambiguities that have created unforeseen damage and violations." 

Of the approximately 80 mobile car wash businesses in Santa Maria, city staff found that many remain stationary on city streets, rather than traveling to clients, and do not have to comply with water containment and disposal standards required of other car washes.

According to City Attorney Thomas Watson, water containing soap, heavy metals and oil from cars is often being drained into nearby tree soil or city stormwater drains, putting the city in danger of violating state water pollution regulations.

He said the impact is especially striking on Boone Street, where as many as 30 mobile car washers can be seen operating in a single day.

"The detrimental environmental impact … and the community impact on Boone Street is significant. That is the consequence of allowing mobile businesses to become stationary," Watson said.

Under the proposed ordinance, mobile car washers would have to obtain equipment like tarps to prevent water from entering the street, and extra tanks to transport it to the city's wastewater disposal facility.

They also would have the option of transitioning to a waterless model by using steam or spray to clean cars, Watson said. However, neither of the options are particularly cheap.

Dan Hernandez, owner of Dan's Mobile Detail and Pressure Wash on North Dejoy Street, said his purchase of vapor cleaning equipment, an extractor and a tarp over the last year would bring him in compliance with the new ordinance. The supplies cost over $10,000, he said, which could create a financial barrier to mobile car washers and detailers. 

"I know it would hurt a lot of these detailers. They do it not because they want to but because they need the money," Hernandez said. "This new regulation will make it pretty expensive for them, and it's probably going to drop a lot of business." 

When asked about the approximate cost of the required equipment, Watson could not provide an estimate but said some washers have been able to pull together makeshift containment systems using cheap materials. 

"We're not here to put anybody out of business," said Watson, echoing language used when city officials passed a similar ordinance in January regulating street vendors. "We will try to give out to everyone the best information we have." 

Cordero expressed concerns about the financial impacts of the ordinance on mobile car wash businesses, mentioning that it may need to be altered in the future. 

"I have some concerns with it, and think somewhere along the line it'll get challenged and we'll be back here again," Cordero said. "Some of these people will go out of business. It's going to create some difficulties."

As a way of monitoring the ordinance's impacts, council members requested that code enforcement offiers review the efficacy of the ordinance and the impacts on mobile car washers after a six-month period. 

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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