The Santa Monica City Council has postponed approving an interim ordinance modifying zoning regulations for auto dealerships in Santa Monica until January so that city staff can rewrite the ordinance and get more input from the dealerships and residents.

Councilmembers were scheduled to approve or deny the ordinance and certify a final environmental impact report on the issue Tuesday, October 25th.

Representatives from the auto dealerships complained that the ordinance places too many economic burdens on the dealerships and includes rules that were never discussed with the dealerships.

“We have spent the last ten years working together and I thought we made a lot more progress than this ordinance, which is going to mandate that we stay exactly like we are now,” said Mike Sullivan, a spokesperson for the Santa Monica Auto Dealers Association.

“We don’t disagree with the neighbors, but we are not going to change because the city is giving us things — then immediately taking things away,” Sullivan said.

The ordinance would have allowed auto dealerships to open or build facilities in the M1 (industrial conservation) district and build off-street parking structures, subterranean space, and rooftop parking.

However, auto dealerships would be prohibited from loading or unloading vehicle trailers on streets, would be required to dismantle car alarms, and would be allowed a temporary use permit to store vehicles for only three months.

The most egregious requirement in the ordinance, according to auto dealerships, is that dealerships in residential zones would need to get a conditional use permit and meet standard conditions of approval if the dealerships add space to make their facilities more than 7,500 square feet.

If dealerships add more parking space to their lots so that employees and customers do not park on residential streets or add space to load and unload vehicles on-site, the dealerships would be required to meet numerous design and development standards.

“Fundamentally, we believe that development of a residential property is an issue of compatibility and the conditions that exist in the ordinance are not viewed by staff as onerous,” said Jonathan Lait, a Santa Monica city planner.

“The conditional use permit creates a public process in which residents would have the opportunity to have a forum to help mitigate auto dealership uses,” Lait said.

Dealerships would also be subject to regulations on vehicle storage, queuing of vehicles, test driving, alley traffic, vehicle repair, noise control, air quality, hours of operation, vehicle stacking, and accessory automobile rental.

“I thought this all started out with an effort to relieve parking problems in Santa Monica,” said Robert Ferguson, a spokesperson for Santa Monica BMW.

“Now we are talking about loading and unloading on the street, signs and banners, and are not addressing the problems that brought us here in the first place,” Ferguson said.

He also said Santa Monica BMW would not build a new parking structure if the dealership has to get a conditional use permit.

“It is not economically feasible to build a parking structure on the site based upon the conditions that are required,” Ferguson said.

“With a ramp to get up to the second floor and handicapped parking spaces we must provide, we would end up with a few more parking spaces than we already have,” he said.

City staff said auto dealerships and residents have been at odds with each other for several years over parking and the loading and unloading of vehicle trailers on residential streets.

Residents complain that on-street loading and unloading blocks traffic and creates too much noise.

Since 1996, city laws have prohibited loading and unloading of vehicles on streets unless dealerships get a permit from the city parking and traffic engineer, said Marsha Moutrie, Santa Monica city attorney.

“This is one of the most important concerns that residents have,” Lait said.

“The Planning Commission and staff agree that there is a lot written in this ordinance to benefit the auto dealerships, and prohibiting on-street loading and unloading balances the competing interests of the dealerships and residents,” Lait said.

Santa Monica Councilman Ken Genser brought up the issue of signs and banners and alleged that auto dealerships are not complying with existing city laws.

“I don’t have any major concerns with the ordinance, but I question why we are amending our standards for an industry that has shown complete disregard for our ordinances, particularly our sign ordinances,” Genser said.

“The dealerships in Santa Monica — most everyone, but not everyone — have in the last year put up an explosion of signs, banners, flags, and all kinds of things that never used to exist to this extent,” he said.

Ferguson said Santa Monica BMW does not have any signs or banners on its lot. He said city officials should send a letter to dealerships that are violating the sign ordinance rather than castigate dealerships that have done nothing wrong.

Complying with the requirement to turn off car alarms is impossible, Sullivan said, because alarms are factory-installed and cannot be disengaged with just one step.

“It can’t be done,” Sullivan said. “The fuse can’t just be pulled because there are brains on the alarms and they can’t be offset without offsetting something else in the car.”

The ordinance also limits the floor aspect ratio of auto dealerships, despite an auto dealership association study in 2001 that concluded that sales growth among Santa Monica dealerships remains flat compared to sales growth in Southern California.

The study said sales growth has been limited because Santa Monica dealerships are operating on small and constrained lots.

“Not having enough space means not being able to sell hot models,” said Bill Rewald, a spokesperson for W.I. Simonson Mercedes-Benz in Santa Monica.

“If you take care of the manufacturers, they will say, ‘By the way, here are some extra cars for you.’ But you need space for extra cars.”

Councilmembers directed city staff to return in January with a new ordinance that takes into consideration issues that dealership representatives have addressed.

Sullivan said city staff did not consult with the auto dealers association or with auto dealerships on many of the ordinance’s requirements.

“The proposed ordinance is a lot to do about nothing because from an economic standpoint, nobody is going to build a facility that the City Council is making a discussion about,” Ferguson said. “We certainly are not and I don’t know of another dealership who will.”

Herb Katz, Santa Monica mayor pro tem, wants the requirements for turning off car alarms and the conditional use permit removed or rewritten.

“If any of the dealerships take advantage of providing parking on the residential zone lots, then they would have to get a conditional use permit for the entire facility,” Katz said.

“I am wondering why we are discouraging the dealerships when we are trying to solve problems and not create problems,” he said.

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