Auto Repair Shops Back in City Council's Focus: San Mateo, California Considers Whether to Amend Regulations, or Enforce Codes

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Years after San Mateo, California officials clashed with several automotive repair shop owners over code violations, the city will consider whether to amend its rules or finally pursue enforcement.

On Monday night, the council will be asked whether they’d be interested in changing existing zoning and building codes — such as parking standards and requiring certain work be done indoors — as a way to resolve complaints dating back to 2012.

Around that time, the city had an estimated 189 auto-related businesses; many of which are congregated near Claremont Street and Railroad Avenue, along Amphlett Boulevard, and around Palm Avenue, according to the city.

The council’s direction could also affect an ongoing legal battle. Lawsuits have ensued between the city and one local business owner who alleges he was singled out when the city sought to enforce the rules against him after he spoke in opposition.

The issue initially ramped up when the city reportedly received complaints from neighbors about parking issues spilling onto the streets. Upon inspection of several businesses, city staff found various code violations and that several shops had unpermitted vehicle lifts, several illegally located outdoors.

Because the vehicle lifts are considered work stations, the city requires businesses maintain two additional on-site parking spaces per lift. The city warned the businesses violating the rules they could be hit with a $2,000 administrative fee plus daily civil penalties if the owners didn’t comply. But the city eventually postponed any enforcement as it dealt with its own internal issues in the Community Development Department and an audit following a debate over a 7-Eleven being allowed near a residential neighborhood.

Now, the city has the capacity to again take up the issue and the council will be asked how it would like to proceed, said City Attorney Shawn Mason, noting it’s not yet known whether enforcing the rules would put many out of business.

Monday’s meeting will be “a conversation about the use of services that are provided, and the impact on these services if we keep the rules as they are. And trying to understand what the implications of that will be,” Mason said. “It’s the impact of enforcing what we have on the books now, on the availability of these services in the community.”

Kevin Benner, who has owned a local auto repair shop for more than two decades, recalled when the city first began enforcement proceedings and how many local proprietors were shocked.

His small Claremont Street auto shop has sufficient parking and, although he had an unpermitted lift, it was indoors, Benner said, explaining other shops have bigger problems. But, many have been operating the same way for decades and were caught off guard when they were suddenly told they were breaking the rules, he said.

Plus, the parking issues along the street aren’t the sole fault of the car repair shops; many issues such as double parking are actually related to other businesses, he said.

“But they come after the auto repair shops,” Benner said.

With housing and office space redevelopment afoot throughout the city, Benner said some of these small business owners wonder whether there will be a place for them.

“The whole city is overcrowded, why are they going after the little guys like us when they’re allowing all these huge [development] projects?” he asked. “The way the rents have been going up around here and everything else, I’m just barely making it.”

Vice Mayor David Lim said he is mindful of how the city affects businesses, but safety must take priority. One question he’ll seek an answer to Monday is whether the lifts can slowly be damaged by being located outdoors instead of inside a shop.

“I’m always concerned about the ability of small businesses to work and thrive in our community and I want them to succeed as much as anybody. But I don’t put that before public safety,” Lim said.

He noted the original enforcement action was prompted by community complaints about parking, which has only gotten worse.

“I’m not looking to make life easier necessarily in terms of code enforcement. I’m looking to do what’s right for the community and the public, and that includes the people who have to work on these lifts,” Lim said.

Various options the council will consider are changing zoning codes or alleviating parking requirements, providing violators an amortization period to phase out the illegal lifts, or immediately begin enforcement proceedings, according to a staff report.

Depending on the council’s direction, Mason said if it decides to amend codes, a public hearing process would ensue before anything is adopted.

Monday’s action may also affect an ongoing legal battle.

The city and the owners of Hudson Automotive have sued one another and agreed to temporarily postpone further action on an appeal San Mateo made after a portion of their case was dismissed, Mason said.

The city filed a suit against Hudson in 2014 alleging it had illegal outdoor lifts. In response, Hudson claimed the city was violating the owner’s civil rights by deciding to single them out for enforcement while letting others go.

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