Fighting City Hall paid off for Sparkles Car Wash owner Renee Ellis.
She protested a $79,693 building fee the city assessed in April when she submitted plans for Sparkles Car Wash on Coffee Road, arguing that the charge was too expensive for her business's impact and size.
The City Council agreed, voting 4-2 on Tuesday to repay Ellis about $33,500.
Councilmen Brad Hawn and Garrad Marsh voted to uphold the first charge. Mayor Jim Ridenour missed the meeting while he attended a city lobbying trip in Washington, D.C.
City fees are determined by the size and type of business involved. Ellis' complaint generated about 85 minutes of circuitous debate about those criteria.
One argument against her initial charge held that the city should have assessed the building fee on the square footage of the carports at Ellis' business instead of the total size of her building. This case held sway with council members because it reflected comments a city employee mailed to Ellis last year.
That's the equation that carried the vote, with the city agreeing to lop about 2,000 square feet from the for-mula used to calculate Ellis' fee.
The other argument in the mix centered on the broad categories Modesto uses to set building fees: industrial, retail and medical office. They were set in 2003 by a council vote.
Ellis paid $18.30 per square foot, the city's retail fee last year. That's the same amount a fast food restaurant pays.
Pat McGrath, her attorney, asserted that her business wouldn't have the same impact in terms of customers driving to the carwash as would a McDonald's.
Council members agreed, saying they wanted to revisit those fees soon.
"I have a hard time believing that this is going to generate as much traffic as a McDonald's," Councilman Will O'Bryant said. "It's wrong what we're charging on this, and I'd like to fix it."
To confuse matters further, the city apparently didn't get at least one of the letters Ellis sent protesting the charge, leading to months of delay. Acting City Clerk Stephanie Lopez said the mix-up likely happened because Ellis sent the letters to City Hall's physical address, which Modesto shares with Stanislaus County, instead of the city's post office box.
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2366.