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Local businessman fought city hall and won

The tents stay.

That's the decision of the city’s committee of adjustment, which voted unanimously to allow Kirkland Blake, owner of Blake’s Ultimate Detailing, to continue to use three tents that he says are key to the success of his business. 

The committee is also allowing Blake to operate with significantly fewer parking spaces than are usually required.

“I am happy and obviously relieved that this is done,” said Blake who said previously he would have no choice but to close up shop and leave town if the city fined him for contravening municipal bylaws and made him take down his tents.

“I am definitely going to keep the business going now,” he said following the committee’s Feb. 13 decision. “Judging from the support of the people, we’re not going anywhere.”

The vote put an end to a highly-charged dispute between Blake and city hall that saw him pleading in front of council last year to make an exception for his business. The dispute galvanized the community and generated petitions of support for Blake that were signed by about 2,400 people.

Blake, 29, started his auto detailing business at the corner of Lakeshore and Colborne roads three years ago. He erected one large tent and two smaller ones on his lot to shelter customer vehicles once they were ready for pick-up. 

But a complaint about the tents was received by city hall in the fall. And, because Blake’s use for the property is non-conforming in a mostly residential neighbourhood, that single complaint prompted a city bylaw enforcement officer to visit the property and tell Blake he was violating a bylaw and had to remove the tents. 

“I explained why I need the tents and he said that wasn’t his priority,” Blake said. “He said he’s just there to enforce the rules.”

Blake was told the tents are accessory buildings permitted in the rear yard only with setbacks and lot requirements for each.  Accessory buildings cannot exceed 10% of the lot coverage.  An order from the city in October said Blake could be fined up to $25,000 if he didn’t remove his largest tent.

In December, Blake took his case to city council and asked the politicians for help. But council said he needed to go through the formal process of applying for a minor variance.

All along, Blake maintained his small business couldn’t afford the application process. It costs $624 to apply and requires supporting documentation like a scaled site plan and structure drawings.  He said that would cost him thousands of dollars.

But in early February – working with his landlord – Blake made the application. 

“A few organizations reached out to me to see if they could help us do the mapping free-of-charge,” he said.  “Some really good folks helped behind the scenes.

“Ultimately the cost to me for the variance was about $800. I can assure you, it was not a smooth process,” he added.

When he stood in front of the committee of adjustment, which decides on minor variance applications, Blake said he didn’t hold out much hope because city staff had recommended that the committee refuse his application.

Staff said the variance does not maintain the intent of the city’s official plan or zoning bylaw, is not minor, and is “not desirable for the appropriate development or use of the lands.”

Blake said he was surprised when the committee disagreed with staff.

Generally, the city isn’t using enough discretion or demonstrating a willingness to work with small business owners, he said.

“Staff didn’t make it easy at all. They only wanted to enforce the bylaw.  There was never any consideration for the impact on my life. I have three kids to support and the people who work for me have kids.”

He employs four full-time people and six more in the summer.

Blake said he’s grateful for the thousands of local residents who rallied behind him, signing the petition, writing supportive letters and attending the committee meeting.

“I don’t have enough words when I think of the community support,” he said. “It gave me confidence to fight for my livelihood.

“I saw how mad people were. They really showed up for me.”

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