St. George passes temporary ban on new car washes, other facilities as it reviews water use ordinances

ST. GEORGE — A six-month pause on approving new car washes, recreation and entertainment centers in St. George was passed Thursday evening by the City Council in order to give city staff and officials time to review city code regarding projects that come with high water use.

Jami Brackin, St. George deputy city attorney, shares details of the temporary zoning ordinance with the St. George City Council, St. George, Utah, Feb. 3, 2922 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“This is in response to concerns people have about the drought conditions and the current lack of moisture,” Deputy City Attorney Jami Brackin said during the council meeting as she introduced the agenda item. “Certainly the City Council and others in the area are very concerned about water conditions right now, and conservation is needed.”

The temporary zoning ordinance puts a freeze on the approval of new applications for car washes and recreation/entertainment facilities for up to six-months. Applications submitted prior to the passing of the temporary ordinance are not affected by it and will continue to move through the approval process.

Car washes and the other facilities were considered an “obvious choice” for the initial discussion surrounding a future reworking of the city’s development code as they are considered to have “above average water use,” Brackin said.

Councilwoman Natalie Larsen said she was a partner in a local car wash and asked if she needed to recuse herself from voting on the ordinance. While she was able to later vote in favor of the temporary measure, she also mentioned how car washes can use much less water for washing cars than people washing them at home.

In this file photo, a Tagg-N-Go car wash employee sprays down a truck as it enters the car wash. The spray nozzle on the want the employ users helps keep the amount of water used on the truck low, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

As previously covered by St. George News, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that the average homeowner uses around 160 gallons of water when washing their vehicles. In contrast, most car washes will use 60% less water for the entire process than a homeowner does just rinsing the car.

Some local car washes also employ water reclamation systems that allow them to reuse up to 70% or more of their water.

“We give car washes a black eye. Is washing your car at home much better?” Larsen said.

As car washes can vary in how much water they use and reclaim, Councilman Jimmie Hughes said the council needs to be able to get its hands on “the real numbers” involved. That data is a part of what city officials hope to review and discuss during the six-month period.

“We obviously want to get a lot of input, as much as as can and have it based on data as much as we can and hopefully come up with standards and best practices in the future,” Brackin said.

While new car washes and the recreation and entertainment centers are the focal point of conversion for now, Brackin added the city will be looking at others projects and conservation practices moving forward.

St. George Mayor Michele Randall, St. George, Utah, Feb. 3, 2922 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“The thing is we’re going to look at everything, just everything,” Mayor Michele Randall said, adding that includes looking at every heavy-water user in the city, continuing work on a new water conservation ordinance, reexamining water rates, continuing the removal of non-functional turf on city property and converting to more efficient irrigation methods. “It all has to be on the table,” she said.

Hughes also said that while some conservation efforts were geared toward new development, long-term residents accustomed to using as much water as they pleased will likely need to cut back as drought conditions continue.

“There’s an obvious quality of life issue for those who have been here a long time,” Hughes said.

While she supports water conservation efforts, Councilman Michelle Tanner said she preferred seeing a market-based solution and use rates appropriate for a scarce commodity like water over the city’s imposing the temporary ban.

“I would much more vote for something along those lines that makes more sense to me than giving government more power because when I hear its temporary – when are things in government ever temporary?” Tanner said. “That’s my concern. I think its a slippery slope.”

St. George City Councilwoman Michelle Tanner, St. George, Utah, Feb, 3, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The mayor said state law only allows a city up to six months for a temporary zoning ordinance, and the city needs to figure out the next steps to take within that time frame concerning its development code and water conservation.

An item that will be added to whatever a new ordinance looks like will be an affidavit or similar document signed by developers acknowledging that they are responsible for securing water rights for their developments.

“The city of St. George is not the supplier of water, the (Washington County Water Conservancy District) is,” City Manager Adam Lenhard said.

This step will make it known and transparent in the development process that the city does not guarantee a development any supply of water. Lenhard said. Aside from that, there is no change in procedure regarding a going to the water district with a building permit and paying an impact fee for the water, he said.

Water may also come through sources outside of the water district, such as agricultural conversion to culinary water or wells, Brackin said. It nonetheless remains the developer’s responsibly to get the rights to that water, and not the city’s, she added.

“We do not guarantee the availability of water,” Lenhard said. “We are not saying this is not water for development, there is, but we’ve got to clear up any lack of transparency about where that water comes from… We think this transparency is very important at this stage.”

The temporary zoning ordinance was passed 4-1 with Tanner casting the nay vote.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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