San Rafael to expand animal care business zoning

Pet hospitals, groomers and other animal care centers will soon be allowed to operate in San Rafael in areas reserved for business offices to meet a growing demand for such services and to fill office space as vacancy rates rise.

The City Council unanimously endorsed the move Monday. The zoning text amendment to make it happen was proposed by San Rafael attorneys Peter Spoerl and Riley Hurd, who said they have a number of clients eager to bring animal care businesses to the city.

“I think it’s going to be a really good fit,” Hurd told the council.

Animal care centers, excluding exterior kennels and dog runs, were already permitted uses in other commercial districts in the city, said Jayni Allsep, a contract city planner.

The new ordinance will extend that to the city’s office district, which runs along the Highway 101 corridor and throughout the northern part of the city, Allsep said.

Businesses will be subject to a set of performance standards, such as providing onsite employee handbooks, performing sound attenuation studies and providing adequate waste facilities. The conditional use permit to operate would require the approval of the city’s zoning administrator.

Allsep said the Planning Commission endorsed the proposed ordinance at a meeting in June.

Cindy Machado, director of animal services at Marin Humane, said while there is no way to count the number of pets in Marin, national trends indicate that more households have them since the pandemic hit over two years ago.

“Marin definitely has higher numbers than many other counties,” Machado said, noting that the county averages about 17,000 recorded licensed dogs annually.

While the county has about 40 veterinary clinics, Machado said “nationally, there is a tremendous shortage of vets and staff that has created a backlog of service abilities of many hospitals in Marin and outside the county.”

“This sounds like a great move on the city’s part,” Machado said. “It reflects the perspective on how the pets involved in our lives are more like family members than just animals.”

Overall in Marin County, commercial office vacancy rates have increased from 8.7% in 2015 to 17.1% today, according to market research by Cushman and Wakefield, a commercial real estate firm.

San Rafael is in line with that trend, recording an office vacancy rate of 11.6% in 2015 and 17.3% today.

By comparison, the office space vacancy rate has been more steady in Sonoma County, decreasing from 12.8% in 2015 to 11.9% today, according to the report.

“Property owners throughout Marin are having to rethink how to utilize existing office spaces,” Hurd said after the meeting. “While housing appears to be the predominant evolution for these sites, there are thankfully some other uses also in high demand, like veterinary services.”

Vice Mayor Rachel Kertz said the ordinance provides additional opportunities to expand business uses.

“We need to keep updating our ordinances to fit the needs of our business community as well,” Kertz said.

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