the First Car Is Washed
Maze of Rules and Mess of Regulators
Confront Wash Owners
By Jim and
wouldn't think it would be so difficult to open a car wash.
A few self-service bays in a nice building,
plus an in-bay automatic. Probably 90 days from bare ground, and
that's giving the contractor a lot of slack. It takes a little longer,
naturally, for a full-service wash, with or without lube, detail,
and various other customer conveniences.
Not so fast!
Wasik and Chris Koenig learned that lesson over the past three-plus
years as they struggled to carry the concept of Scrubs Car Wash
in Gainesville, FL from initial thought to opening day last May.
Their five self-serve bays and the automatic
are doing well, but the smoothness of current operations gives little
visible evidence of the maze of legal hurdles and rules they had
to overcome before making their concept a reality.
Many of their more experienced counterparts
in the car wash business might have warned them. It seems that most
operators have met equally daunting obstacles in opening up their
washes. Perhaps the only exception might come through taking over
an existing wash, which is essentially grandfathered past all such
a closer look at Scrubs. Located at 3135 SW 42nd Street in Gainesville,
it's outside the city limits but still considered a part of Gainesville.
Housed on a 0.76-acre lot, it is attractively built and almost lavishly
landscaped. It opened quietly at the end of last school year in
this University of Florida city. The timing was beneficial as it
allowed any operating difficulties to be sorted out before students
and others returned to campus in late August, swelling the city's
population by 46,000 returnees and newcomers.
Fitted with equipment from Jim Coleman Co.,
the five self-serve bays as well as the Water Wizard automatic offer
"about everything you can possibly have" in washing options,
as Wasik puts it. Popular options include the tire cleaner and the
bug remover, the latter especially in May and September when "love
bugs" mate, smash onto windshields and car surfaces so thick
they obscure one's vision, while the acid from their decaying bodies
attacks automotive finishes.
Six vacuum islands offer regular vacuuming
as well as shampoo vac and fragrance vac choices. A Dilling-Harris
Max-Vend II, American Changers, and an American Paystation autocashier
complement the wash equipment. There is also a well-patronized Gatorade
vending machine, a natural addition since Gatorade was created at
the University of Florida in 1965 (Go Gators!).
Having all these amenities on site makes
sense. Not so understandable, given the property's use, is the presence
of a bike rack and a handicapped-accessible sidewalk, both required
by local officials, and neither used even once during the three
months since opening when Auto Laundry News interviewed the co-owners.
Scrubs is built of cinder-block bay separators
and exterior walls. Foot-square tiles are accented with a blue stripe
to help carry out the blue and yellow color scheme. The shingles
on the roof have blue in them also, and when the sun hits them,
give the appearance of water running off the roof.
Asphalt driveways and parking areas adjoin
the structure. The landscaping which further frames Scrubs includes
a lawn provided by 23 pallets of sod, nearly 100 bushes, and about
25 new trees.
"We only took down one tree, an old
pine which surely would have succumbed soon to pine needle infestation,
and there were some scrub trees there," observes Wasik. "But
where we've built, they [officials] demanded a high-density buffer
on the back, not only the shrubs and trees but also a wooden fence,
plus another fence around our Dumpster and stabilized grass parking
like here, as elsewhere, stereotypes of old car washes make government
planners and zoning officials go to extraordinary lengths to conceal
or disguise their modern successors:
When Ted Bert wanted to build Deer Creek Car Wash in Rancho Cucamonga,
the mid-1980s, city officials made it plain "they
didn't want anything that looked like a
car wash in their city."
o In Nashville, TN, Johnnie Jones of National Car Wash says, "Car
washes have been so
traditionally, they've made us build six-foot masonry walls all
around the ones we're
building now" with a 20-foot green buffer inside
the wall, thus obscuring it from anyone
outside. He also has to point his bays a different
way if residential property is within 100
feet of his property.
a suitable site for a car wash, no matter what the appearance restrictions,
is a formidable task in itself, but one that must be tempered from
the outset with some knowledge or at least an impression of how
restrictive each government jurisdiction may be.
For example, Wasik and Koenig chose to locate
Scrubs outside Gainesville's official city limits when they realized
that within the limits you could only build in certain areas. Even
then, according to Wasik, you had to get a permit. A special permit
for a car wash hadn't been given in some time, not even to experienced,
"Chances are we wouldn't be approved
(within the city) after a substantial investment," Wasik recalls,
"so we looked to the county, which doesn't require a special
permit" but requires that the proposed site be properly zoned.
Even what looks like a "lock"
on the right parcel of ground may not be. Wasik and Koenig had all
the paperwork drawn up on one land parcel after the owner accepted
their offer. That owner changed his mind and sold it to someone
else. The prospective car wash owners then focused on an adjoining
parcel owned by the University of Florida Foundation. It wasn't
for sale, but they convinced the Foundation to sell after explaining
they had prepared all the material for the site next door.
Sewer access wasn't easily resolved but
was absolutely essential both to avoid disturbing paving later and
to have a marketable property for another owner in case their plans
didn't succeed. As a condition of their site purchase, Wasik and
Koenig made certain that any ensuing owner would pay for their sewer
RESTRICTIONS & REQUIREMENTS
Zoning is never as simple as an outsider
might think. Scrubs' owners were buying property zoned MS; the adjoining
property where a "flex office" (front offices, back warehousing)
had been built was MP. Land planner Jay Brown discovered a regulation
that requires a 35-foot buffer between the two, even though both
are industrial-type properties. Had that rule prevailed, the width
of Scrubs' location would have been squeezed from 145 feet to 110
feet, not enough space for the bays necessary for a reasonably sized
"We had to speak to the Board of Adjustments
to allow an exemption," Wasik recalls. "First Jay went
to them on our behalf, and when it didn't look so good, I went to
them. They finally granted us a six-month exemption, and only for
a self-serve car wash. If we changed that plan, then the 35-foot
buffer got put back on the property."
They then went forward to the Developmental
Review Committee. The DRC reviewed and then returned their plans,
saying the property would have to have both a sidewalk and a handicapped
sidewalk, even though the flex-office unit next door wasn't required
to do so. A retention pond in front of the wash had to be redesigned,
The bike rack issue came in about the same
time. "We had it in one place, which they approved. Then they
looked at it and decided someone might run into it, even though
it was in front of the equipment room door, not a bay," Wasik
remembers. "We said if they ran into the bike rack, they'd
also run into the autocashier."
After explaining that all pertinent structures
were encased in cement and protected by bollards, solid concrete-and-metal
posts like those protecting the fronts of convenience stores, and
after waiting an additional three weeks for approval, the construction
Requirements such as a handicapped sidewalk,
even when it seems unlikely to be used or appears to be unconnected
to a car wash property, aren't news to Johnnie Jones. Building a
wash on a lot with a 10-year-old sidewalk, his company was required
to rebuild ramps to make the sidewalk handicapped accessible, "even
though we're not doing anything in that area and the ramps are 20
feet off our property on a right-of-way."
Car wash operators like to see lots of cars
pass their property. The traffic count at the Scrubs site was at
a gratifying high level. It proved to be a double-edged sword, however.
The Scrubs partners had to hire a traffic engineer to do a study
of their location. "There's a thing here called concurrency
where the road maxes out," Wasik explains. "At 85 percent
[of maximum traffic capacity] you have to start paying extra money
to the county. The study we were required to have done showed our
road wasn't quite at 85 percent." The figure was even less
when they had begun construction. Still, Wasik and Koenig had to
pay extra money as a form of
The length and complexity of the process
surprised Chris Koenig. "I never thought it would be as lengthy,
or there'd be so many hurdles to leap over. We're now looking at
some properties with an eye to future business. We know how long
it may take to get necessary approvals. It took three years to do
Knowing and working with local planners
and country resource people, and identifying architects and builders
who seem to work most successfully with them, can pay dividends
other car wash operators have found:
o John Jelken of Cedar River Car Wash in Fowlerville, MI used
the county economic
development office for demographic and traffic studies
and to learn about new
apartments and other housing planned in his
area. He also took his equipment
vendor, Tom Wilson of GinSan, and his surveyor to
the planning commission to get the
o Your reputation as a good operator can give you an edge. The
developer of a renewed
downtown Deerfield, IL was impressed by Juli and
Keith Jacobs' first Grand Prix Car
Wash in nearby Buffalo Grove and asked if they would
be part of the new Deerfield
o "I'd advise anyone getting ready to build a car wash to
really talk to the codes people
before they even buy the lot, find out exactly what
you can and can't do," says Johnnie
Jones in Tennessee. He says hours of operation and
the orientation of the wash may be
severely restricted in some communities.
o Ted Bert hired an architect who had been quite successful in
getting projects approved
in Rancho Cucamonga, even though the architect's
expertise was in schools and public
facilities. Deer Creek Car Wash is described by Bert
as "a Taj Mahal" of structures, but
the city specified its colors and required an acre
of landscaping to hide the wash from
the street. He thinks such restrictions help explain
why Rancho Cucamonga has so few
car washes in proportion to its population.
The lessons for would-be car wash operators,
and even those who might be expanding after a fairly easy entry
into the business, are plain:
o Allow plenty of time to get going, unless you
or the seller of the property has already
cleared some potential obstacles. Start searching as
early as possible for new sites. Be
alert to development trends.
o Have alternate sites in mind in case the difficulties getting
approval for the first site are
o Keep neighborhood impact in mind. Even with proper zoning, a brightly-lit
wash may not be welcome near a quiet residential zone.
o Choose jurisdictions, if possible, where planning and zoning authorities
likely to approve reasonable proposals. Get acquainted
with local development
officials and keep up to date on emerging projects.
o Anticipate requirements imposed by recent legislation such as
handicapped access even
if they seem irrelevant to your business.
o Work with architects or site planners who seem to have a good
success record with the
authorities who'll rule on your proposal. Use them
to present your plans in the best
o Have some contingency money. If you've figured your new business
loan too tightly,
you'll be severely embarrassed - or even rejected -
asking for more because of
Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry