ROBERT BARRON CITIZEN
Friends and neighbours of Sam’s Auto Shop are quickly gathering names on a petition in a last-ditch effort to save the little company.
The owner, Amar Rashead, has been ordered by the Municipality of North Cowichan to shut down the business, located on the corner of Somenos Road and Highway 18, and take apart thousands of dollars of renovations and upgrades he has completed to buildings on the property by May 20.
Rashead has been attempting to fix a number of issues on the half-acre property that the municipality has wanted dealt with as he worked towards his plan to tear down the aging two-door garage and replace it with a new four-door garage for his auto inspection and repair business, with living space above.
Nick Yaremchuk, a long-time customer of Rashead and one of the organizers of the petition, said “it’s unbelievable” the amount of hoops the municipality has made the shop owner jump through, only to turn him down in the end.
Yaremchuk said, at the advice of bylaw officers from North Cowichan, Rashead had invested $70,000 in his property to remove underground gas storage tanks that were left from when the site housed a gas station, consolidate the two properties on the site to make it easier for rezoning for his new garage, and renovate buildings on the property.
Michael Mark, North Cowichan’s manager of building and compliance, said one of the many issues in the case is that Rashead decided to run his inspection and repair shop without the mandatory first step of petitioning the municipality for the proper rezoning to allow it.
“I can’t believe the travesty of justice that is being done here and, judging by how fast neighbours are signing the petition, many others can’t believe it either,” Yaremchuk said.
“Amar is a kind and gentle man from Syria who emigrated to Canada for a better life for him and his family 26 years ago. He’s been exceedingly nice to the people from the municipality and has done everything that has been asked, and nobody can understand why he is being treated this way.”
Rashead, who worked as a mechanic in his own shop in downtown Duncan for years, said he bought the property four years ago.
He said the site was ideal for his purposes, and he expected few zoning problems as the property once had a gas station on it for many years.
But Rashead said bylaw officers began visiting the shop just two weeks after he took over, and the demands and the problems began.
“I was told that if I did everything they ask, I would get the zoning and be allowed to continue operations and build my new garage, but I ended up paying $70,000 and then got stabbed in the back,” he said.
“I can’t understand why I’m being treated this way. I’m just trying to make a living here for my family.”
Joyce Behnsen, a councillor in North Cowichan, said it’s not the first time owners of that property have had trouble with the municipality over their plans for the site.
She said a young couple who owned the property before Rashead also wanted to start a business there, but faced similar challenges.
“It was a nightmare for them, and they lost all their investment in the property before they gave up on it,” Behnsen said.
“I don’t know what the municipality thinks is supposed to go there, and there are other businesses of this sort in the area. I don’t think Amar should be treated this way and I don’t know why he is.”
Behnsen also said there is almost $700,000 worth of municipal road upgrades currently taking place mere feet away from Sam’s Auto on Somenos Road, north from the intersection with Highway 18.
She wonders why such improvements are taking place in the sparsely-populated area in which there are, supposedly, no major development plans by the municipality.
Mark said it’s a fact that Rashead was operating a repair shop on the premises without first applying for rezoning to allow such an operation.
He said bylaw officers likely did tell Rashead what would have to be done on the property as part of the rezoning process, but they wouldn’t have told him that it would guarantee the property would be rezoned.
A staff report on the rezoning request indicated that, among the issues with the site is that the property is small, approximately half the area needed to conduct automotive repair as a home-based business on a residential lot.
Staff recommended council not allow the rezoning, and the majority of council declined to give it, leading to the municipality’s enforcement action against Rashead.
“Property owners always have the option to ask for rezoning, but it must be understood that rezoning is a public process and is always at the discretion of council,” Mark said.
John Lefebure, mayor of North Cowichan, said there is no bias by anyone in the municipality, either on staff or on council, against Rashead or anyone else who owns the property.
He said the decision to reject Rashead’s application for rezoning and the order to shut down his business were based on a number of legitimate concerns.
“We’ve been having enforcement issues on the property for a long time, with all kinds of bylaw violations, including putting up buildings and doing work without permits,” Lefebure said.
“What would [Rashead] expect after completely ignoring our rules? As well as the many bylaw violations, there’s also the fact that the property is only half the area that would be needed to run the operation he wants. The issues here are very clear and there is certainly no bias in the municipality and no hidden agendas.”
As for the highway work going on adjacent to Rashead’s property, Lefebure said the road project is part of the municipality’s ongoing transportation plan.
He said traffic numbers have increased in that area, partly due to the new Cowichan Commons shopping centre that has been constructed nearby.
In addition, Lefebure said municipal workers have also been engaged in providing better bike and pedestrian networks on North Cowichan roadways, and the current work near Sam’s Auto is part of that ongoing agenda. Lefebure said Rashead can apply to the municipality again for a rezoning of his property.
In the meantime, if Rashead doesn’t comply with the order to close his shop and undo the other renovations on site by the time the inspectors arrive on May 20, he could face up to six months in prison or face a fine of up to $10,000, plus the cost of prosecution.
His defenders intend to present their petition to council at its meeting on May 18.