After over a year in business north Dartmouth’s The Darkside (196 Windmill Road)—an art space and cafe—is facing financial troubles that could force its closure. But isn’t because of lack of support from the neighbourhood. Owners Oliver Mahon and Megan Hirons Mahon have been fined nearly $47,000— $100 a day for every day its been open— for violating zoning bylaws, a charge they’ll argue in court tomorrow.
The Darkside took to Facebook last night to share its grievances with the public, but the problems with the city aren’t new.
Before opening the business in fall 2014, Mahon and Hirons Mahon applied for a permit to open a cafe-bakery but were denied because of the land-use bylaws. Instead, the pair ended up with a permit for an art store, which also allowed them to serve accessory food and drink. Since then The Darkside’s been showcasing and selling work by local artists, and serving coffee, baked goods and some hot food to its patrons. Hirons Mahon says that while it was emphasized that the food portion of the business had to be accessory, the division between art sales and food sales was never quantified.
“We were trying to work within the rules that were established,” says Hirons Mahon. “Within two weeks of us opening they were in inspecting us, counting people who bought art or bought coffee.” A notice to comply followed shortly after this inspection.
“The design submitted to us showed a small area in a corner of the gallery where coffee would be available for gallery patrons. However, what is actually being offered on site is a broader food and beverage service, including tables inside and outside of the establishment, clearly indicating a cafe/restaurant use,” says city spokesperson Tiffany Chase via email.
Hirons Mahon, who's been in the process of pursuing a development agreement with the city through her landlord and lawyer for three months, hopes to be able to "meet half-way" to make the business work within the zoning requirements. “The city is very difficult for small business to deal with," she says."This is a deliberately narrow interpretation of rules."
Applying to re-zone The Darkside's current space is still an option though— and its one that the city has suggested Mahon and Hirons Mahon explore.
"Because of the nature of the request, we anticipated we could process the zoning amendment quite quickly," says Chase. "The applicants appear unwilling to go this route to allow for the cafe, as a development agreement process has not been initiated."
Hirons Mahon says she's aware of this option, but maintains that The Darkside shouldn't have to re-zone in the first place. "We believe we're operating correctly."