Council Fine Tunes Auto Repair Ordinance

By Jorge Casuso

After nearly six hours of hammering and fine-tuning, the Santa Monica City Council early Wednesday morning approved amendments to a 10-year-old auto repair shop ordinance whose recent enforcement owners feared would drive them out of town.

The 5 to 2 vote was cast around 1 a.m. before a crowd that had dwindled from more than 250 shop owners and their supporters to a couple of dozen. The vote came at the end of a long and bumpy road fraught with collisions between shop owners and residents, who complained about noisy repair work and customers' cars taking up their streets.

"We're hoping when it goes out on the road, it runs," said Mayor Pam O'Connor, comparing the ordinance to a car. "We're hoping it's not a clunker. It's a compromise."

"I can't say I'm happy," said Chuck Perliter, owner of Santa Monica Radiator, who led the fight for the shop owners. "I'm glad it's over. I'm glad we could work out a compromise, but we're going to have to sacrifice."

The ordinance does not go as far as shop owners had hoped, but it makes major concessions. It increases the amount of space allotted for certain outdoor work from 400 square feet within 20 feet of an existing building to 50 percent of the outdoor area within 20 feet of a building as long as it's 50 feet away from a residence. (The 1988 ordinance prohibits all outdoor work.)

The ordinance also widens the scope of the outdoor work that can be done to include battery powered and hand tools. In addition, the council directed staff to draft language that would permit repairing large vehicles outdoors.

The ordinance, however, still requires shop owners to enclose or not use outdoor hoists; screen vehicles awaiting body and fender repair; provide an approved container for spare parts; pave the building site, except in areas of building and landscaping, and landscape the perimeter of the site and the vehicle parking and driveway areas.

The council, however, eased the landscaping requirements when it entailed knocking down an existing structure.

The compromise was struck after nearly 40 shop owners and their supporters gave often emotional testimonials, warning that the ordinance would force them to lay off employees, raise prices or shut down their businesses, some of which have been in the city for more than half a century.

"I have three outdoor hoists," said Don Ruiz, the owner of Ace Auto Pros. "Fifty percent of my work is done outside. This is putting me out of business. It's going to force people to go to dealerships to have their work done."

"Businesses will go out of business," said Howard Okumura. The shop owner then described a typical conversation with a customer after the ordinance goes into effect: "What's wrong? Take a number. How much? A lot. How soon? I don't know.

"How many people are really complaining?" Okumura asked the council. "Is it less than one percent?"

Shop owners, the Chamber of Commerce, The Lookout and several city officials have requested documentation showing how many complaints have been filed and the nature of the complaints that have sparked enforcement of a 10 year-old ordinance.

Planning director Suzanne Frick said the city does no have documentation showing the number and nature of the complaints but staff is working on the requests. (The requests have been made repeatedly over the past several months.)

"It's a very difficult and arduous task," Frick said. "We need to hire a person to go through the files. It will take two to three weeks to gather that information."

Repair shop owners contend that many of the complaints are not noise related and that only a few shops are the subject of many of the complaints.

"Punishing all for the noise violations of the few is unfair and unreasonable," said Gayle Gustafson. "The council is overreacting to a few complaints by very vocal residents. It's outrageous."

"We have no hard evidence that a significant number of shops are causing noise problems," said Councilman Paul Rosenstein, who voted for the amendments after trying unsuccessfully to delay a vote until city staff provided more information. "We don't even know what the complaints are. We're trying to use a sledge hammer when a scalpel is needed."

Failing to get the requested information, auto repair shop owners provided their own studies.

Acoustical expert Martin Newsom said that only one of the five shops he tested exceeded the city's permitted decibel level. In fact, Newsom said, some of the street noise was louder than the sounds generated by much of the repair work.

"I expected a car garage to be pretty noisy," Newsom said, "and that's not what I found."

Some council members, however, countered that the existing law should be enforced whether neighbors are complaining or not.

"It's not the City Council all of a sudden in a draconian way cracking the whip," said Councilman Kevin McKeown, who voted against the amended ordinance, saying it would be difficult to enforce. "If a stop sign is put up and no one stops, it's not wrong writing tickets.

"We have to recognize that not everyone in this industry has been responsible," said McKeown, who, along with Councilman Ken Genser, cast the two dissenting votes. "That's why you have to have laws in society."

The ordinace went through so many last minute revisions, some council members feared it would be unenforceable, if not incomprehensible.

"The more detail, the less enforceable it becomes because it becomes a jumble of verbiage," warned Councilman Richard Bloom, who voted for the final amendments.

"What this is showing is the fruitlessness of doing this at all," Rosenstein said. "We're just going around in circles with so many variations that it's becoming a fruitless effort."

In the end, most council members thought the amended ordinance is a good compromise that can be fined tuned further if needed.

"I think we have made as much flexibility for repair shops as we can and still make room for residents," said Councilman Michael Feinstein, who voted for the amendments. "We're taking a chance the industry will do some self enforcement.

"I don't know if our protections will work," Feinstein said, referring to the residents. "If they don't work, we'll have to do more."

But supporters of the repair shops warned against cracking down on a dwindling industry that provides blue color jobs in a city that prides itself on diversity.

"Seeing the community become a faceless landscape is very, very sad for me and my family," said Michael Gottlieb. The proposed ordinance, he said, "is turning the city into one big Giffy Lube. It looks the same, feels the same. This scheme is taking a wonderful city and making it uninhabitable."

"You can make my building a flower shop and make the city look like Carmel," said J. Kapodistrias. "You can't play with people's lives."

Some of the shops, supporters said, date back to the 1920s and 1930s, long before the neighbors who complain of noise moved in.

"My dad began this business the year I was born, in 1953," said Greg Morgan, owner of Morgan's Auto Service. "I'm in this business because I like to help people. I have third generation customers. I'm proud of my work."