Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Dark Side of Not Even Trying To Understand

What do the obstacles facing The Dark Side Cafe in Dartmouth and the obstacles facing Home-based businesses in Lunenburg have in common?  Nothing.  They are polar opposites.  Well, other than mass hysteria, that is.  A few days ago this post showed up on my Facebook feed and I watched the reactions of the hundreds of people sharing the post.."Idiots, morons, stupid bureaucrats."  My heart fell into my stomach.  Partly because I knew, from my own personal experience, that these idiots, morons and stupid bureaucrats were the very people that spent countless of their own unpaid hours schooling me on zoning bylaws and the building code, so that I could better understand the error that was happening in Lunenburg and other parts of rural Nova Scotia.  Having actually met or spoken on the phone with some of these people, I knew that they were concerned enough about small business to help a woman outside of their own municipality.  But the court of Facebook is not one that weighs facts or makes an effort to understand.  The court of Facebook is a reactionary court. It prosecutes without evidence.

So, if I may, let's talk about facts a little bit. The Dark Side Cafe rented a little building, they wanted to run a cafe, but were told that the zoning of the area did not permit a cafe, so instead they said they would run an art shop and serve coffee on the side.  That was permitted.  What is an art shop with coffee on the side?  Well, it's like a bookstore that does book readings and serves cookies.  They then proceeded to run a cafe.  One month later, the city tells them that cafes are not permitted in the zone, but they could apply for a development agreement and change their use.  They chose not to go this route.

Without making an effort to understand what zoning is all about, the whole thing seems petty.  I mean, Gawd, what difference does it make if they are an art gallery or a cafe, if they are entrepreneurs bringing new life to Nova Scotia and everyone in the neighbourhood is happy to have them?

Here's the deal.  The staff in Halifax understand that zoning bylaws are real, honest to goodness laws.  It's their job to uphold the laws.  In Lunenburg, zoning bylaws are treated like make believe laws that can be discarded or enforced at will.  The other thing to keep in mind is that zoning bylaws are created by the community.  They might have been created by the community a few decades ago and individuals in the community may not have shown up for the public meeting, but planning (zoning) is community driven.  So, Dartmouth, you made some laws and now you are pissed off that the people you pay to uphold them are doing their job.  Excellent reactionary work.

I have learned to love zoning bylaws.  Too bad for me because nobody around these parts seems to give a damn about them.   Me and the zoning bylaw hang out in dark, seedy pubs, down shots of rum and bemoan the fact that nobody understands us anymore.  But if one were to make even the slightest attempt at understanding they would see how truly beautiful and well thought out these laws are.  Zoning bylaws are what protect people in homes from having a glue factory or a chicken processing plant move in next door.  Zoning bylaws make special places for commercial businesses to group together, so that customers can easily find them.  And yes, zoning bylaws allow people to run small businesses in exclusively residential zones without being commercial occupancies.

Back to The Dark Side.  They wanted to run a cafe, but it wasn't permitted in the zone.  That's O.K.  The story doesn't need to end there.  This is where a development agreement comes into play.  The development agreement says, Hey, the people of Dartmouth technically said you can't run a cafe here, but you do seem like a cool hip addition to the neighbourhood, so we'll ask around and if nobody has any objections we'll make an exception for you.  It's a legal process.  It's a process that consults with the people.  That's an alternative to screaming, "Idiots, Morons, just let us do what we want, you small business haters!"

So, what would happen next if the development agreement went through?  Uh oh......It's the dreaded, "Change of Use".  Man, I hate those words.  I hate them because they have been misapplied to my own business.  If The Town of Lunenburg, or even the province made the slightest attempt to understand zoning rules they would know that you don't need a change of use to run a home-based business when it is permitted by bylaw.  I'll have another drink, please.  When Change of Use is real, it is a bitter pill to swallow.  It means that you were an art shop, but now you are a cafe.  Now there are different building code regulations that apply to you and these renovations can be costly.  I can hear it already...Idiots, Morons, stupid, small business hating, building inspectors.

Sometimes the building code comes to hang out with me and the zoning bylaw in the pub. Get a few drinks into the building code and he really lets loose.  "No respect, no respect....  Don't those folks remember the days when factory workers got trapped in burning buildings.  Do they care that babies got their heads stuck between the balusters on stair cases.  What about accessibility?  Why am I always the bad guy?"

So, what do you do if you want to open a cafe in a funky little neighbourhood?  Well, first of all, you check if the zoning permits it.  Then you check if the building you are in needs a change of use.  If you have the money to proceed with the renovations then go forth and do business, if not, you might want to have a back up plan.

What about this scenario?  The zoning rules are outdated or just plain stupid. Here are a couple of examples.  In Lunenburg, we had a parking rule for home based businesses that required 3, 20 x10 foot parking spots.  Many lot sizes are 40 feet wide.  You do the math.   What happened?  The town of Lunenburg, to their credit, amended the bylaw.  It was a long, painful process, but the community came together and said, this is what we want, council listened and now home-based businesses no longer need additional parking spots.  It's a good start.   Here's another one-  In Annapolis Royal, a couple learned that their zoning bylaw said you could have an antique shop, but you could not have an art shop.  That is what stupid looks like.  The impact of both these businesses on a neighbourhood is exactly the same.  No one at town hall tried to understand the intent behind the law.  No one reached out to help these people.  That couple now lives in B.C.

 But a coffee shop?   A coffee shop has a higher impact on a neighbourhood than an art shop.  So, if in Dartmouth you decide that in this zone you would like to see more coffee shops, then go tell your councilor and start the ball rolling.  You guys are in charge. But don't go screaming at the bureaucrats when they uphold your laws.

Now, last but not least, the court case.  Do you really imagine that the people behind the desks over there at the planning department were masterminding an evil plot to financially ruin a nice young couple?  Come on, people, put your critical thinking caps on. How many attempts at getting these guys to comply were made before the decision was made to prosecute?  What would you do if it were your job to uphold the law and a business owner refused?  At some point you would have to take action.  That's your job.  Wait, don't take your critical thinking caps off yet.  Is it possible that this thing might get settled out of court or that maybe the fine might be seriously reduced? Maybe this was just the final action that was needed to get a conversation going between the business and the city.  It's too bad it had to get to this point.

Accckkk, I lied, there is another last thing.  The press.  The business owners said $47,000 in fines.  That's a sexy number to throw around.  Looks great in a headline.  Did any of you reporters bother to do a little fact checking?

Laws are not the bad guys, people that are entrusted to uphold laws are not the bad guys. Granted, sometimes you run into a bureaucrat or a building inspector on a power trip, but they aren't all like that. Ignorance and the lack of will to gain understanding is the bad guy.  I'm seeing a lot of that right now and it really pisses me off.

Hey, wait for me, Building Code and Zoning Bylaw, if you guys are going out drinking,  I'm coming with you.


  1. Thank you for bringing some sense to this story. Like you, I shook my head at the ill-informed reactions on social media.

  2. Very well explained. Thank you. I too shook my head at the ill-informed reactions on social media and for the story portrayed by The Dark Side.


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