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Planning Commission Paves Way for Dealership Structures

By Gene Williams
Staff Writer

July 25 -- It looks like Santa Monica car dealers may get the additional parking they have long been asking for after the Planning Commission last week cleared the way for dealerships to build parking structures -- perhaps as high as 28 feet -- on residentially zoned lots.

Although the specifics have yet to be hammered out, the commission last Wednesday gave its okay to amend the City’s General Plan -- a necessary step before an ordinance can be passed, City staff said.

The amendment will now go to the City Council, which seems likely to approve the new regulations it asked for last year.

The potential structures have pitted car dealers, who say they need to expand their facilities to stay competitive, against neighboring residents, who have long complained about traffic, noise, and safety hazards created by the dealerships, which provide the City with more than a fifth of its sales-tax revenue.

On Wednesday, Commissioner Barbara Brown expressed hesitancy before voting, but hoped that both parties would be well served by the direction the City is taking after several years of public hearings.

“This is difficult. I had a difficult time with this when it came up before,” Brown explained to some half dozen residents who showed up to oppose the plan.

“We wrestled with this, and in balance we really did believe that the potential placement of structures on these lots would benefit residents as well as dealers,” she explained. “That was the thinking, and not a disregard for the residents.”

Representing the car dealers Wednesday, attorney Chris Harding argued that the structures would actually create an environmental benefit by keeping more activity on site. Most dealers currently have their inventory spread out at remote locations throughout the City.

Commissioner Darrell Clarke agreed. “Looking at issues of traffic spilling over into the neighborhoods and car shuffling from remote locations to the dealership, more parking on site is a way of reducing those impacts,” Clarke said.

The residents echoed their earlier complaints. The dealers show little regard for the neighborhoods, unloading cars late at night, speeding down residential streets and alleys, and violating noise ordinances, they said.

George Mckee thought the City was too eager to comply with businesses’ requests.

“This is not the case of the City saying, ‘We need this,’” McKee said. “This is the car dealers going to the City, and the City saying, ‘We’re going to do this for you.’”

Another resident, Jerry George, brought a petition signed by neighbors saying nearby car dealers “treat our street like a drag strip.”

Commissioner Gwynne Pugh suggested a “quid pro quo” which would require the auto sellers to be better citizens in exchange for being able to build the structures.

But many residents were skeptical, saying that car dealers continually skirt the rules. Allowing dealerships to expand their facilities would allow them to expand the problems they create, the residents said.

“If you increase the inventories of these facilities 3 to 5 percent you will also increase traffic and other activities 3 to 5 percent,” Sharon West told the commission.

Before the amendment was approved unanimously, Commissioner Jay Johnson encouraged the residents to stay involved in the process as the details are worked out.

In other business, the commission elected new officers: Johnson will replace Brown as Chair, and Pugh will replace Clarke as Chair Pro Tem.

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