Located opposite the Food Basics plaza in Fonthill, the Pelham Car Wash has drawn the ire of nearby residents for what they describe as intolerable noise. DON RICKERS

Fonthill residents offer $500 reward for solution to car wash noise

Homeowners along Stonegate Place and Hurricane Road have a bad case of the car wash blues. And they’re putting their money where their mouths are.

A group of neighbours — many of them retirees — have sent Town staff and councillors a flyer which offers a symbolic $500 reward for a successful suggestion as to how to convince the Town of Pelham to “overcome their inaction in enforcing noise and nuisance bylaws” related to the Pelham Car Wash, located at 151 Highway 20 East. Some 70 homes are immediately north of the facility and within hearing range.

A formal presentation to Town council is also in the works, according to Bob Reinhart, who resides on Stonegate Place, and has kept a meticulous timeline of all details related to the issue.

On February 11, resident Tom Campbell emailed Mayor Marvin Junkin, expressing his disappointment that the car wash had been operating since November 2020 “with very loud dryers that affect residents on Stonegate Place, Scottdale Court, and Hurricane Road. This car wash is operating 7 AM to 11 PM, seven days a week. The dryer can be heard from the MCC in the south to the ravine behind Stonegate in the north,” he wrote. “My wife and I are in our 80s, and do not feel that we and our neighbours should be subjected to this constant loud noise both day and night.”

Campbell noted that due to pandemic lockdowns, they were confined at home, “which has always been our joy, but with the constant whining of the car wash dryers, when the warm weather arrives, we will not be able to utilise our back patio, and windows and doors will have to be kept closed.”

A “reward” offering by affected neighbours near the Pelham Car Wash. SUPPLIED

Bylaw officer Craig Genesse met with residents about the complaint, then referred the matter to Shannon Larocque, of the Town’s planning department.

The Town of Pelham’s current noise bylaw does not establish an objective decibel level as a criterion for acceptable or unacceptable noise. Rather, it refers to a subjective standard of “unwanted noise” at the point of reception at a residence.

The Town modified its noise control bylaws in 2010, according to Reinhart, the end result being that protection for residential areas was provided by prohibiting any commercial car wash disturbances “at all times.” He insists that council made very specific changes to the bylaw, due to resident complaints about car wash noise emanating from this same location, which at the time was the only drive-through car wash in town.

The pitch of the noise is part of the problem. As car wash machinery ages, it often emits sounds at higher frequencies, which can be especially aggravating. It is not simply about the volume of noise, as measured in decibels, according to Reinhart.

While the current car wash went into operation in 2020, the equipment installed in it was used, and was already nearly a decade old on opening day, according to an industry source familiar with the location and installation.

Jerry Hadrasky is a retired engineer, with a background in acoustics and vibration, who has lived on Stonegate for 19 years. He described how pitch, location, wind speed and direction, and sound reflection are all auditory variables, along with decibel measurement.

“Regardless of the decibel level, the continual noise affects your nervous system, and your mental health,” he said.

Pat Gray, a realtor who has lived on Hurricane Road since 2005, is another aggravated homeowner. He provided an analogy.

“A barking dog registers between 50 and 70 decibels, which is lower than what might be measured at the exit of a drive-through car wash. Nevertheless, would you tolerate a barking dog in your home for 16 hours a day, from 7 AM to 11 PM, and barking all day at even 60 decibels? I think not. Everyone deserves peace and quiet in their homes.”

Would you tolerate a barking dog in your home for 16 hours a day, from 7 AM to 11 PM, and barking all day at even 60 decibels?

Mayor Junkin emailed residents to say that the Town is “headed in the direction of a high soundproof fence, paid for by the owner and on the owner’s land. This is coming to council to approve the bylaw amendment to allow the fence. If the fence proves unsatisfactory, the Town will explore other options. I am asking you to please be patient on this matter.”

Asked for comment, Junkin told the Voice that he was “disappointed that it has taken as long as it has to get this barrier built, but it must be remembered that the owners have tried several other steps to alleviate the problem. While the residents have made it quite clear that they are not satisfied with the time frame that this process has taken, the fact of the matter is is that there is a process, and it must be followed.”

The property is owned by Gail Levay, who says she has been operating various businesses on the site for 52 years, before many of the nearby homes were built.

In this undated file photo, business owner Gail Levay is in the driver’s seat at her Fonthill business. VOICE FILE

The car wash itself is operated by Blake Atkinson and Spencer Carter, under the business name Car Wash Guys. They refitted the car wash for operation in 2020.

Fire Chief Bob Lymburner oversees bylaw enforcement in Pelham, and told the Voice that action has been taken by Levay. He said the car wash entrance and exit direction have been reversed in an effort to reduce the noise on Hurricane, and that the doors have been reprogrammed, so that they remain shut until the blowers are off.

“With bylaws, the way we run things here in Pelham, it’s done in a pragmatic way. We don’t want to shut down businesses, and affect people’s livelihoods. So we try to mitigate to make both parties happy. The report [on the bylaw variance application] goes to council on June 7, and if it gets approval I would anticipate the construction to be done very soon.”

Typically both the property owner and any business operating on site are equally liable for bylaw violations.

Numerous emails were sent to the Mayor, said Reinhart, pleading the case for the residents.

“Please explain to our community how the Town proposes to compel Ms. Levay to build a 160-foot-long, 14-foot-high, soundproof fence, the cost of which could be as high as $100,000, when the Town has no means to do so, because the Town allowed her to violate the site plan agreement for so long, that you now have no means to compel her to build that fence.” Reinhart’s comment referenced what he asserted was a site plan condition, dating from 1988, that Levay erect a 150-foot fence at the car wash, which has never been completed.

Reinhart maintains that the fence will never be built, and suspects that the fence proposal is just a ploy designed to calm the residents “by having us wait for a June council meeting, then put us off some more waiting for the dream of the soundproof fence that’s going to restore our quality of life. Of course, it will never come. But what will happen throughout all this is that the air dryer noise will continue.”

In his email to the Mayor, Reinhart attached an audio recording of the noise, with instructions for Junkin to “be sure to play it during breakfast, lunch, and dinner, on your deck, in the bathroom, relaxing with your family, and when you’re not feeling well. Remember to play it every five minutes or so. Put it on your phone so you can play it while walking your dog, strolling through your neighbourhood, or when you’re gardening. Perhaps if you do this you’ll get some sense of our frustration with this noise.”

“I imagine that if you lived in our community this noise would have stopped long ago.”

“All the pertinent details have been communicated to the Town’s solicitor,” said a frustrated Gray. “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Town doesn’t simply enforce their noise bylaw and compel the operator to muffle the dryers or bring the current dryers up to today’s standards of quiet efficiency.”

The residents group has indicated that they do not want a fence—they want the dryers muffled, or replaced with more modern, quieter equipment.

Another issue which Gray raised was diminishing property values.

“As a realtor for 11 years with Royal Lepage NRC Realty, I contend the level of the present racket would have to be disclosed to potential buyers to ensure the property was presented in an open and fair light,” he said.

Such a disclosure, he maintained, would negatively affect the negotiations for the seller, and could be used to justify a lower offer.

“Just like the cannabis operation on Foss Road has affected nearby values, or wind turbines throughout West Lincoln, such disturbances or facilities are required to be disclosed by a reputable realtor,” said Gray.

Gail Levay (who also owns the gas station on site) maintains that the car wash property is zoned commercial, and predates the subdivision by a significant number of years (most of the homes along Hurricane are approximately 15 years old). The business is something of an anomaly, in that commercial car washes rarely have residential units near them.

Approximately 150 vehicles use the drive-through wash daily on average, Levay told the Voice, who declared that the drive-through has always been a fixture on site. However, the residents group contends that this is false. They insist that a manual car wash (without the noise) was present from 1988 to approximately 2008, and then became AutoHaus of Fonthill, a car repair facility. They say that later it was used as a storage facility, and then leased to Nine Lives Custom Refinishing until 2019.

Mike Gallagher, Levay’s son-in-law, who grew up in Pelham, told the Voice that the original car wash was installed in 1989, and operated for 20 years before going dormant. Current operator Blake Atkinson offered a different daily wash number than Levay, asserting that at most 50 cars go through on average.

“We’ve never had more than 100 cars go through the car wash on any given day,” said Atkinson.

His partner, Spencer Carter, also pushed back on the age of the equipment installed, although acknowledged that it was bought used.

“I’ve been all across this country building car washes,” said Carter, “and I can tell you that our car wash is no different from any other. Our equipment here is not old—we’re talking three, four years max.”

Our car wash is no different from any other. Our equipment here is not old—we’re talking three, four years max.

Levay said she has applied for the bylaw variance to erect a long, high, acoustic barrier at the back of the property—which Carter compared to those seen along highways— but asserted that updating the car wash machinery and replacing the dryers and fans would be prohibitively expensive. She claims truck noise on Highway 20 is more of a disturbance than her car wash noise, and added her own complaints about some Hurricane-area pedestrians who walk across her parking lot, taking a shortcut to Highway 20.

Some residents wonder whether Levay’s stature in the community may be shielding her from more vigorous bylaw enforcement. Levay, 80, was a charter member of the Fonthill Rotary Club, and has served in a multitude of civic roles over decades, including on the Fonthill Bandshell Concert Committee, crossing paths with both Ward 2 councillors Ron Kore and John Wink. The business is located in Ward 2. Neither councillor responded to a Voice request for comment.

For a 2018 article on Levay’s lengthy tenure with Rotary, past president Paul Snack noted that she was a “lifelong Pelham resident and business owner.”

“She is plugged in to the community and knows most of the ‘who’s who’ of Fonthill,” Snack told the Voice. “Gail grew up here, so, when we hear her stories it sounds like she has known absolutely everyone or is at least related to half of them.”

Pat Gray argues that such a legacy “should not give her a ‘Get out of Bylaw Free card.’”

“Especially when dodging the noise bylaw is ruining her neighbouring senior citizens’ enjoyment of their final years.”

Noting that “Service Above Self” is the Rotary motto, Gray said that Levay will be better regarded if she would place “Neighbours above self.”

“Surely Gail doesn’t wish to be remembered as someone who used her reputation, standing and influence in the community to permit her to ride roughshod over its bylaws and her neighbours,” said Gray.

“Her local stature coupled with the inaction of the Town to enforce its noise bylaw might be construed to be a case of bias, and calls for investigation to determine if favoritism is in play, and whether a boycott of Gail’s facility is warranted.”

Mayor Junkin downplayed the suggestion of favouritism.

“I personally have never met [Levay],” Junkin told the Voice. “This is a legitimate business operating in a commercially zoned area of the Town, and I am confident the owner will continue to work with the Town to resolve this problem.”

Despite speaking at length and in person to the Voice at the car wash, Levay concluded by stating, “this can’t go in the newspaper.”

When told that an article presenting all sides would indeed be published, Levay repeated her instruction that the paper not do so, then said that if a story did appear, “I’ll never advertise with the Voice again.”

[RELATED: The Voice responds to Levay’s comment.]

Pelham CAO David Cribbs commented that for the past two years, the Town has been consistently examining and reviewing its bylaws.

“As we become aware of deficiencies, we certainly have a track record of addressing them, and the Town’s solicitor is now aware of some potential enhancements and modernizations that are possible with the Town’s noise bylaw,” he said.

“We’re not trying to be insensitive—we think we’ve found a solution [the acoustic barrier/fence] that doesn’t drive the car wash owner out of business, but does respect the privacy rights and the reasonable expectation for quiet enjoyment of property. And we do want to deliver on that.”

Responding to the residents’ request that the car wash dryers and blowers be replaced with quieter equipment, rather than having a wall erected, Cribbs said, “the Town has no way to legally enforce that. The noise bylaw doesn’t say, ‘and by the way, you can force a business to invest in capital.’”

Cribbs asserted that the bylaw department was attempting to find a “balance between resident concerns and the practical operation of a small business.”

“Both have legitimate needs and concerns. Further commentary is inappropriate at this time as an aspect of the underlying issue will be on the next council agenda.”

Mike Gallagher said that the residents don’t need to worry.

“We are people who keep our word. My mother-in-law has been in the community for 50 years running that business. So when we say we’re putting up this fence, we’re going to follow through with it.”

With files from Dave Burket.