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A FEATURE ARTICLE FROM

OCTOBER 2001

Before the First Car Is Washed
Maze of Rules and Mess of Regulators
Confront Wash Owners
By
Jim and Elaine Norland

    You 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!
    Mike 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 difficulties.

THE CAR WASH

    First, 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 as well."

BAD REPUTATION

    Seems 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:

o When Ted Bert wanted to build Deer Creek Car Wash in Rancho Cucamonga, CA in
   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
  
ugly 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.

SITE SEARCH

    Finding 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, reputable operators.
    "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 access costs.

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 wash.
    "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, too.
    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 process resumed.
    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
mitigation.
    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 it here."

SUCCESS STORIES

    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
   wash approved.
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
   development.
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.

LESSONS LEARNED

    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
   insurmountable.
o Keep neighborhood impact in mind. Even with proper zoning, a brightly-lit 24-hour
   wash may not be welcome near a quiet residential zone.
o Choose jurisdictions, if possible, where planning and zoning authorities seem more
   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
   possible light.
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
   unexpected requirements.


Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry News.

 

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