Call it a victory for neighbors. At its March 9 meeting the St. Anthony City Council voted 4-1 to deny a conditional use permit (CUP) to Tom Archambault, owner of BLVD Autoworks, to build a car wash on a triangle of land next to his business.
The vote came near the end of a three-hour meeting, during which council members heard testimony from Archambault and from residents of the Kenzington retirement community and single-family homeowners in the vicinity of 2701 Kenzie Terrace.
At its Jan. 26 meeting, the council referred the CUP application back to the Planning Commission, which was charged with clarifying its recommendation to grant Archambault permission to build the car wash. The commission was also charged with examining the impact of the proposed operation on air quality, stormwater management, noise and the potential impact on neighboring property values.
The commission came back with 12 recommendations, including shifting the car wash building five feet east, planting evergreens, adding a permanent noise-insulated structure to house vacuum machinery, closing the car wash doors prior to starting cars down the conveyor and keeping the exit doors closed until the dryers finished their cycle.
Archambault said he was willing to comply with the commission’s conditions, but noted some difficulties. He took issue with Item 7, regarding the vacuum machinery. He said a car wash like the one he proposed operates on a large turbine system rather than individual motors for each vacuum hose. The turbine would be housed within the building, so there was no need to build another structure for the vacuum.
He also had trouble with Item 8, which required the car wash entry doors to close before the machinery could start. “As soon as a patron approaches the door, it opens,” he said. He said to shut off the equipment and re-start it would be inefficient, both in terms of energy use and in moving cars through the wash. He said the drying end of the car wash line is the noisiest part of the operation and the door at the end of the line could remain shut until drying was complete.
Item 12, which specified operating hours of 7 a.m.-7 p.m., were no problem, Archambault said. However, the phrase, “or other hours of operation as may be required by this or future City Council consideration” were “too open for interpretation.” He objected to the city telling him how to operate his business.
Residents got their chance to weigh in on the matter, too. Many had done some homework, visiting various car wash operations around the Twin Cities and researching car wash industry periodicals. One woman noted an article on carwash.com that said car washes are particularly prone to vandalism. She cited another article that found that placing shrubbery and trees around the car wash could contribute to its – and the neighborhood’s – vulnerability.
Susan Guthrie said placing a car wash within 75 feet of existing homes was “unacceptable.” “It will negatively impact air, water, noise and property values,” she said. Her husband, Tom Deegan, a former Minneapolis fire marshal, joined her in denouncing the council’s instructions to staff to do footwork they deemed Archambault’s responsibility. “In the City of Minneapolis, we would have said to him, ‘We need to see the specifics on your car wash, the motors, the blower.’ That way, when we directed him to do a noise analysis, they [the city] would have a basis to work off of.”
Dave Colling observed a car wash in the western suburbs and talked to a man who lived next door who told him the most annoying noise came from people playing their car stereos as they waited in line or vacuumed their vehicles.
Archambault had told the council the noise rating for similar car wash operations was about 63 decibels. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency regulations limit noise to 60 decibels.
Dr. Phil Hoversten, who works with car wash workers, said, “We need more data on health and safety in car washes to make a definitive decision. A car going down the highway produces 70 decibels of noise.” He said noise 80 decibels and above causes hearing loss. “There’s noise, and there’s sound, but there is no danger to health.” He also discussed the chemicals used in car washes. “They’re highly regulated,” he said. “We don’t have any data on the health and safety of the workers who are exposed to them daily.”
General contractor John Grotkin defended Archambault’s quest. “He’s a good businessman,” he said. “He’s willing to comply with all the conditions, and the property is zoned commercial. He’s willing to be a good neighbor. It could just as easily be a laundromat.”
Others mentioned that St. Anthony already has three car washes within a mile and a half radius.
One surprising fact emerged during the public hearing: The triangular piece of land on which Archambault wants to build is designated as a park in St. Anthony’s recently-adopted 2040 Comprehensive Plan. “That was unbeknownst to me or anybody else,” he told the Northeaster. “I looked it up. I was not aware of it when I bought the property from Roger Bona in 2015.” Bona had purchased it in 1995.
In the end, it was noise – or the potential noise – that drove the council’s decision. “This property is zoned commercial and permitted. I’d like to look for ways to mitigate the sound,” said Mayor Randy Stille. However, to allow the project to go forward, he said, would be “unfair to the community.”
Council Member Bernard Walker likened the situation to race relations. “We have to weigh the needs and rights of the many versus the needs and rights of one,” he said. Looking at environmental issues, he said, “Who knows the effects of what we can’t see? I cannot support this.”
Council Member Wendy Webster said she would approve the CUP if BLVD could meet the state noise standards, but didn’t see how it was possible.
Council Member Jan Jenson said he was worried about exceeding the noise threshold. “I don’t see how we can allow it. We certainly don’t want to be in violation of state statutes.”
Thomas Randle cast the lone vote in favor of the car wash. “I have been back and forth on this,” he said. “A business owner has to be able to execute his business. I don’t want to deny this [CUP].”
Archambault said he had no immediate plans for the parcel.