Unpermitted vehicle lifts, worker safety, parking impacts and neighborhood concerns drove the council’s conversation on the night of October 17 as it considered the service industry’s place in the city.
The issue arose in 2012 when reported parking complaints eventually led the city to discover other code violations at several auto repair shops. Unpermitted vehicle lifts and repair work illegally being done outdoors drove the city to initiate enforcement proceedings, which it ultimately put on hold until recently. The dispute also led to an ongoing lawsuit between the city and one of the shop owners.
The city recently began considering potential next steps, such as whether to change the rules or begin enforcement. During the October 17 study session, the council noted it might be willing to reconsider existing codes to keep the service industry thriving; but safety and neighborhood concerns remain top priorities.
“I do think the automotive industry and repair shops do play a very vital function in our city; they do provide very meaningful jobs and they do provide very meaningful services,” Deputy Mayor David Lim said, according to a live video of the meeting. “I’m not afraid of regulating a business if it’s for the safety of the public and safety of employees and for quality of life of the community. But I need to have articulable reasons.”
Lim noted the city’s existing code concerning auto repair shops was last updated in 1995. While not sure what prompted rules such as forbidding outdoor work and current parking requirements, Lim suggested the city may have been following in the footsteps of changes in state law.
Lim expressed initial concern about whether the vehicle lifts were made for use outdoors, but he noted the California Division of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, regulates this type of equipment.
Councilmembers agreed they were interested in revisiting the city’s codes and learning more about why the rules were initially passed — such as to address possible noise issues from outdoor work or why the current parking requirements were enacted. Monday was just the initial step, and a lengthy public hearing process would ensue before any city codes are amended.
Mayor Joe Goethals agreed safety was top priority, but he would be interested in questioning “what should be the law, what should it be and why should it be that way, before we move toward enforcement.”
Staff was also directed to begin outreach with business owners and neighborhood groups.
During a 2013 survey, 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.
The city began enforcement against 10 shop owners it inspected, although staff acknowledged the extent of the alleged code violations was not yet known.
About half a dozen local automotive shop owners spoke during the meeting, noting many were caught off guard when the issue was first broached in 2012. In fact, many were unaware that there was a permitting process for vehicle lifts and questioned the city’s rationale for its current parking requirements of two spots per lift.
While some expressed frustration with the process, they emphasized they too made safety a top priority and removing lifts could harm their businesses.
“These racks (lifts) are safe because the fire department signs them off every year. The racks have always been there, I’ve never had a problem, they’re a long-standing use,” said Sean Hudson, owner of Hudson Automotive. “These racks provide our income. Your looking at, for the amount of guys I have, each rack is producing about $15,000 a month. Taking away a rack, I’m going to have to let guys go.”
With housing developments afoot and parking a top complaint amongst both businesses and residents, the group of local shop owners urged the council to refrain from blaming a regional problem on them.
Shop owner Kieran Murray agreed the lifts are an important source of revenue, and that if the real issue is parking, to deal with it accordingly.
“Parking is tough in this area; it’s going to get worse with a lot of the new homes going in," Murray said. "It has nothing to do with racks and as far as permitting and safety, we get inspected by our insurance companies every year. I think we need to enforce parking. ...If it is a parking issue, start giving parking tickets.”
Currently, auto shops are required to have two spots, plus two for each lift. The council said they would be willing to explore the possibility of changing the rules, so long as it didn’t have a negative impact on neighbors residing nearby.
With many of the shops located around the Caltrain tracks near downtown, close to several parcels being considered for housing developments, some had apparently expressed concerns about the city turning its back on the service industry in support of transit-oriented development.
Council members emphasized they recognized and valued the locally-owned service shops and are seeking more information before reconsidering the rules that could affect both residents and small business owners.
We would like to thank San Mateo Daily Journal for reprint permission.