In his On the Wash Front column in this issue, Anthony Analetto makes the case for reexamining site selection rules. Specifically, he contends that for various reasons the “three-mile radius” rule no longer reflects reality. He is not alone in this assessment.
Last month, in his Finishing Line column, Robert Roman provided an extreme example of an express-exterior wash developer who intentionally flouts this rule as part of its expansion plans: the approach to site selection being to “piggyback” on others’ strategies. So, for example, this developer placed a new wash within 1,000 feet of an existing full-service location, another within one mile of a full-service and 1.5 miles of another express. Yet another new express was placed within one mile of five conveyor washes.
Regardless of how plentiful the pool of potential customers might be in such a market, existing operators are sure to view the arrival of a newcomer in such close proximity with a jaundiced eye. Such a scenario is currently playing out in the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.
Reportedly, the operator of an existing wash is opposing plans for a proposed new wash across the street. The basis for the objection is the protection the wetlands on the proposed wash site along which the Charles River runs. The Boston Conservation Commission declined to order the remediation of approximately half the site, an action that would have made it impossible to build the wash. It further declined, however, to approve the wash pending the resolution of a further complication: the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s sewer line and access road that traverse the property.
The opponent to the wash cites the wetlands as the concern. The developer contends that opposition is less about the environment than it is about stifling competition. Regardless of motivation, an appeal to regulators helps ensure that the rules apply equally to everyone.
A detailed account of the controversy was posted on universalhub.com, generating some divergent comments. One, addressing the opponent, read: “I would say up your game. Lower your prices, update your brushes, and do a little something for the neighborhood.” Another shared this: “But it’s kind of crazy that anything is built between the road and the Charles. It’s a shame there isn’t money to acquire those properties as they come up, do some site remediation, and let them support the ecology of the river.”
Discontent with under-your-nose competition is nothing new. Six years ago in Arizona, two local car wash businesses urged a local authority to deny a conditional-use permit that would have allowed another car wash in their area. The petitioners argued that, as it was, the existing car washes were struggling to survive and adding a third wash within a quarter mile of the others would exacerbate an already difficult situation.
The two aggrieved car wash businesses sought to entrust the determination as to whether there is enough/too little/too much competition in the area not to the marketplace, but to a bureaucracy. The very idea challenges our concept of a free market. Businesses cannot curtail competition through official fiat.
The response from the planning director for the local authority was to the point: The criteria for considering a conditional-use permit do not include competition or market conditions, he said. This is as it should be. They deal mostly with impact on surrounding property owners “in terms of nuisances and so forth,” he added. This, too, is as it should be.