Revelstoke Gateway Inn owner William Zhao said an unneccessarily complex and convoluted development process for a garage

Revelstoke Gateway Inn owner William Zhao said an unneccessarily complex and convoluted development process for a garage

City fines, takes motor inn to court over flashing Christmas lights

Case highlights adversarial nature of city/business relations on permit and signage issues and complex, confusing bylaw

It was some pretty harsh criticism from the mayor in a town hall forum – especially when the person being critcized wasn’t there to defend themselves.

“Cheesy, Las Vegas at its worst,” were the mayor’s words to describe two motels that have put up permanent Christmas lights – ones the city is trying to force them to take down.

“They’ve gone beyond appropriate to being quite gaudy,” mayor Raven said. “They’ve contravened a lot of the planning and decor – the heritage values we’ve got in town.”

The question was about an upcoming court case in which the owners of the Gateway Inn on Victoria Road are disputing a $500 fine and an order to remove lights. It came at the city’s Oct. 25 town hall meeting.

The matter came up at the Aug. 14 city council meeting, where staff was directed to enforce a ban on the lights. But what wasn’t so clear in the staff report is the lights targeted aren’t just the multi-coloured rope lights on the archway at the entrance to the hotel; city hall wants him to take down the Christmas lights that line his entire motel because they flash.

Fine, says Gateway Inn owner William Zhao, just point out where in the bylaw it says flashing Christmas lights aren’t allowed, and get started informing everyone else in town not to put them up. “Everybody is OK, why am I not OK?” he asks.

William Zhao took over the Gateway Inn after moving here eight years ago from Vancouver. The issue, says Zhao, is much more complicated than some Christmas lights. It’s been a couple years of dealing with city inspectors after he decided to tear down some shacky, dilapidated storage buildings in the back parking lot and replace them with modern facilities.

He shows me the permit, and conditions placed on it by the city’s Design Review Committee. Since then, he said he’s dealt with many city staff over multiple inspections during the construction process. He said he tried to work in a spirit of cooperation, but the whole thing went sideways. “One person tells me this thing, another person tells you another,” he said.

Before long, the whole project was off the rails and communications between the parties was snarled.

“What do you want me to do? I’ll do it,” Zhao said of the construction issues.

The Gateway Inn’s back parking lot isn’t visible from Victoria Road. I have to agree the whole area of the hotel is much improved over the historical photos. There’s a new storage garage, an improved greenhouse, a gazebo and a picnic area. He plans to use the greenhouse to start more perrenials to improve the gardens around his inn.

That’s the point, Zhao said. He works hard in the peak season and makes the improvements he can in the shoulder seasons, little by little. The city process is overly-bureaucratic and not flexible enough to meet the needs of a business owner juggling the demands of everyday business with the desire to improve. He notes having to re-apply for permits when they expire – too soon in his opinion.

I recalled the Aug. 14 city council meeting. I decided not to do a story on the issue because the city’s staff report seemed pretty clear cut. And a few lights on a gate aren’t really a big deal. But after looking through Zhao’s version of the paperwork – paperwork issued by the city – I’m not so sure.

Zhao’s narrative is compelling; but his moderate English abilities seem to leave him at a disadvantage against a legalese-laden trail of paperwork, and the adversarial bent that is evidenced in a report to the Aug. 14 council meeting.

That report links building permit issues to the Christmas lights issue. Zhao feels once the construction project went sideways, city staff started dinging him for unrelated issues. He’s decided not to back down on the Christmas lights issue. “I already hired a lawyer,” he said. “It’s a totally different story.”

It turns out this conflict with the city wasn’t the first one for Zhao. He added two statues to his gateway when he took over the inn.

They look like figureheads from an ancient Greek pirate ship – two Mediterranean-featured sirens adorned in Rococo-styled linen robes dripping with grape bunches. The topless figures pose seductively, their arms interlaced over their heads as they cast their gazes downward – towards the back parking lot.

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PHOTO: One of two figureheads that were removed from the front archway at the Gateway Inn and exiled to the back parking lot several years back after complaints focusing on their state of undress.

They used to cast their alluring eyes onto Victoria Road from the big gateway structure at the inn, attracting passing motorists to the inn. Zhao said they were also maligned in a public forum without his knowledge. At the time, he’d just arrived in Revelstoke and heard that there’d been a backlash against the immodest statues. He remembers hearing about it and then watching it on the cable channel. Being new to town, he  decided to back down, moving them to their current perch on the back of the building.

I relate the mayor’s comments at the town hall meeting to Zhao – that his place looks cheesy. “Ugly?” he asks, – that’s not in the bylaw. Show me where it says ugly in the bylaw, he tells me.

He adds he’s inviting other business owners who have had similar struggles with their building permits and signs to come support him on his court date (which hasn’t yet been set).