A project came before the Planning Commission last fall that required a Use Permit and a Variance. The proposed project was for a new carwash facility on a site that already contained a tire shop and and auto repair. So the project is an expansion of an existing auto-oriented use along a corridor that is a gateway to our downtown. The site is actually designated Central Core in both the General Plan and the Zoning Code. Both the General Plan and Zoning Code have been updated in the last five years. As part of that update the minimum Floor Area Ratio allowed in the Central Core is 1.0.

This requirement was implemented to prevent low-density suburban type development from occurring in the downtown core. I know because I was on the General Plan Advisory Committee and the Planning Commission when the Zoning Code was updated. The minimum FAR requirement was in part a reaction to a project that had been approved, actually adjacent to the proposed carwash, for a CVS. That property was developed with an FAR around 0.20.

The proposed project is requesting a variance from this requirement. The variance is required because the owner is proposing to subdivide the property into 3 lots. The newly created lot for the carwash, currently vacant, is required to comply with the current General Plan and Zoning Code. If they were to keep the existing single lot configuration, they could argue they are simply expanding an existing use. Which, while I would still not be in favor of, it would be harder to not allow.

But I simply don’t see how this proposed situation is worthy of a variance. The only reason they seem to have for the variance request is that the proposed use does not lend itself to a FAR of 1.0. This was exactly the point of the requirement; to keep this type of use out of the downtown core. There are three things that a request for a variance must demonstrate.

  • That there are exceptional or extraordinary circumstances or conditions applying to the land, building or use referred to in the application, which circumstances or conditions do not apply generally to land, buildings and/or uses in the same district.

Nothing in the application for the car wash demonstrates that there are any conditions unique to this property. The new lot created through the lot split proposed in the application is in the Central Core zoning district and has to comply with the requirements for that district, just like any other property in the downtown core. There is nothing unique about the proposed new lot that would not allow it to be developed with a minimum FAR of 1.0, it is simply that the proposed use runs counter to the FAR requirement. This does not justify a variance.

  • That the granting of the application is necessary for the preservation and enjoyment of substantial property rights of the petitioner.

The applicant is currently operating 2 businesses on the property.  Denying this application does not impact the operation of the existing businesses and therefore is not ‘necessary for the preservation and enjoyment of substantial rights of the petitioner.’

  • That the granting of such application will not, under the circumstances of the particular case, materially affect adversely the health or safety of persons residing or working in the neighborhood of the property of the applicant and will not, under the circumstances of the particular case, be materially detrimental to the public welfare or injurious to the property or improvements in said neighborhood.

The applicant is proposing mitigation measures to reduce the impact of the carwash on the neighbors. It remains to be seen if these mitigation measures would be adequate. But even if there were to be no adverse impacts on the neighborhood, the proposed project does not meet the first two required findings.

There is also some discrepancy in the Zoning Code as to whether the proposed carwash is even an allowed use in the Central Core zoning district. Automotive repair and service is not an allowed use in the district, while Automotive sales, service and repair is an allowed use with the approval of a conditional use permit. Seems contradictory to me. Some, including me, would interpret a carwash as an ‘Automotive repair and service’ use in which case the use should not be allowed in the Central Core district. It is clear that auto-oriented uses are not compatible with a well-functioning urban core that has a goal of being a more pedestrian-friendly place.

I’ll be the first to admit that the area is currently not a great pedestrian environment, and as the primary gateway to Sebastopol from the east, it leaves much to be desired. It is a hodgepodge of uses, many in formerly industrial buildings and warehouses.

The proposed carwash is at the back of this property.

But it can be improved. The building in the image below had been a Ford dealership. It was remodeled and repurposed several years ago and now includes retail, office and a community maker-space facility. It is an example of how a formerly auto-oriented property can be appropriately converted to a use more compatible with being downtown. (Ironically, or not, the same architect for this remodel is the architect for the proposed carwash.) The owner has been considering adding multi-family housing to the property, which would further be a positive contribution to downtown. The owner is obviously concerned that housing next to a car wash might be a harder sell due primarily to the noise.

Since the only reason this applicant needs to seek a variance is because the proposed use does not lend itself to a FAR of 1.0, approval of this application would set a precedent for granting a variance to other uses which do not lend themselves to a FAR of 1.0 downtown. There are other properties downtown that include auto-repair shops, right on Main Street, that could proposed expanding their use in a similar manner. Skirting this requirement does not support the creation of a walkable, mixed-use pedestrian oriented downtown which has been a community priority, and a priority for many current City Council, for years. This is exactly the type of project that the FAR requirement was meant to prohibit.

The variance and use permit application were denied last fall by the Planning Commission in a 6-1 vote. The applicant appealed the decision to the City Council which has had one hearing on the matter and plans to vote on the appeal March 2, 2021. I hear they are leaning toward ruling in favor of the applicant and overturning the decision of the Planning Commission. As someone who has been on the Sebastopol Planning Commission for 5 years now, this happens more often than I would like to admit.

Downtown Sebastopol has some real potential to be a nice, small town pedestrian-friendly downtown, but if we continue to allow auto-oriented uses such as this in our downtown (and do crazy things like remove crosswalks), we make a pedestrian friendly environment that much harder to realize.

Update – The City Council approved the carwash project on a 4-0 vote (the fifth council member is the architect of the carwash and had to recuse himself). I’m finding a hard time understanding how this happened. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, the City Council at the time approved the CVS project after the Planning Commission denied the application. And the City Council also declined to take further steps to allow the redevelopment of a city-owned parking lot on Main Street into a mixed-use housing project. The decisions of the City Council show where their priorities lie, and it seems like that is with business as usual auto-oriented development. I guess it’s hard to break the habit.