Santa Maria resident Roxana Estrada is wondering how her husband's business will survive under new city regulations proposed for mobile car washers. 

Estrada and husband Manuel have been operating Estrada Auto Detailing since the 2008 recession, always with a business license, and never had any trouble with law enforcement. However, new rules would require them to operate only on private property, acquire new equipment and shoulder additional costs. 

"Since the pandemic a year ago, business has been about 45% lower," Estrada said. "If this passes, it’s hundreds of families out of business. They dropped a bomb on us." 

After the Santa Maria City Council passed a first reading of a mobile car wash ordinance on March 16, business owners like the Estradas began pushing back. Around 100 mobile car washers participated in a car caravan on Broadway, followed by a crowd of 60 marchers to City Hall on March 23. 

City officials are pursuing regulations in hopes of curbing the amount of dirty water entering storm drains, as well as preventing mobile washers from operating out of a fixed location, an issue which has become especially prevalent on Boone Street. 

A final vote and adoption of the ordinance will take place at the council's next meeting on April 6. 

"The city is not trying to put anybody out of business. The goal is to have mobile commercial washers return to being mobile, not stationary on a street, which is what drives many of the complaints we receive," city spokesman Mark van de Kamp said in response to Tuesday's march. 

While city officials said they performed extensive outreach to washers in recent months, many washers said they experienced little communication from the city about the coming changes. 

"They need to sit down with us and amend this ordinance," said Chris Barajas, owner of California Detail Center and longtime member of the local mobile wash community. "The outreach months ago was not done with us. The only outreach these detailers received were fines, when they were told they were no longer allowed to wash on the street about a year ago."

One of the main issues with the ordinance, washers said, is the section prohibiting washers from operating on city streets, meaning they can only operate at people's homes or on private property with owner permission.

"That right there is almost impossible. Not every car can be done on private property," Barajas said. "If you go to an office and they’re parked on a street, you usually set up your cones for safety. But now if that building doesn’t allow for private parking, you’ve lost business." 

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The cost of new equipment to meet the regulations also could be prohibitive to washers. A 100-gallon tank system and mat needed to collect and transport dirty water can cost up to $1,200 for a simple system and $2,000 for one that is more advanced, Barajas said.  

Mobile car wash owner Manuel Delgado said he recently bought a new tank for his truck, and doesn't think he can afford further equipment to meet the requirements of the ordinance. 

"We're not doing anything wrong, we just want to work. There are many families that depend on this work," Delgado said. 

Other costs outlined in the ordinance include a $20,000 bond, liability insurance and a series of individual fees for wastewater disposal and drop-off, yearly equipment demonstrations and a wet or dry wash permit.

According to City Attorney Thomas Watson, the exact cost of the fees will not be determined until likely months after the ordinance has passed, while city departments review their fee structures

"Most of our fees are under review under the fee study. Because this is a new ordinance, we have not looked at enforcement costs. We want to keep them small and get the program going with good compliance," Watson said. 

The city also will encourage operators to adopt a waterless car washing option, which employs a spray rather than water, by making the permit cheaper and easier to obtain. Many washers say this option is not feasible for them.

"We live in an agricultural community. There’s mud and dust that get on cars, and dry wash won’t get that off. Dry wash is maybe an option for Beverley Hills, Hollywood, or another big city, but not Santa Maria," Estrada said. 

She added that if her family was able to shoulder the additional costs, they still would have to double the cost of their services, which would result in a loss of customers. 

Barajas said when he started doing mobile car washing in the '90s, there were only a handful of local washers. Now, there are over 100 as more and more people seek ways to provide for their families. 

"Maybe the city should have regulated it before it blew up, but now so many people depend on it. You can’t just put it back in the box," he said.

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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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