Disclaimer: Although this is a work of fiction, the names of the individuals involved in the events portrayed herein, have been changed to protect the innocent, as well as to hide the identity of the guilty. However; who is innocent, and who is guilty, is a matter of opinion.
In 1983, John Smith took over Smith’s Garage from his father. The business, including the building that housed it, had been in the family since 1949. His father, having taken over the gas station from his father in 1969, had converted the business from pumping gas to servicing cars after the gas crisis of the 1970s.
It wasn’t a big operation. There was an office, two primary work bays, and a third bay that was used for storage. It provided a livelihood for three people, John, his wife, Jane, and his son, Jack. Jane schedule appointments, ordered parts, and kept the books in the office. John and Jack fixed cars in the two main bays. John’s father used to wander over and give a helping hand when things were really busy, but old age had caught up to him.
Despite its age, the building was still in good condition. The concrete floor hadn’t cracked or buckled, the brick exterior was unblemished, and the steel supports for the building hadn’t rusted. It was a solid little building. The original gravel driveway had been blacktopped and then a cement driveway poured when the blacktop broke up. The old pumps had been removed, although there was one well preserved pump from the 1950s stuffed in the corner of the storage area. The underground storage tanks for gasoline had been dug up back when the decision to stop selling gasoline had been made. The old grease pits had been replaced with hydraulic lift systems.
John was proud of the business even though he would never get rich from it. He made enough to feed, clothe, shelter, and educate his children. His daughter, Jill, had gone to nursing school. She was a nurse for a nearby doctor. Although Jack worked on cars, he had earned a business degree from the community college. John planned to hand off the business to his son within a couple of years, and take a well earned retirement.
For more years that he could remember, John had been active in the community. He wasn’t political, but did what he could to help out. He had joined the volunteer fire department when he had turned twenty-one. He donated money for improvements to the town park and had been one of the men who had helped build the gazebo there.
The little business had supported generations of little league baseball players. Photographs of forty years of baseball teams decorated one office wall. There were some customers who would come into the office, and smile upon seeing their picture hanging there. There were a few customers who had their pictures, and pictures of their children, on that wall. In a year or two, there would be three generations of kids hanging on the wall.
Another wall contained pictures of the business, taken every year, documenting the gradual changes that had taken place. It had become a family tradition to take a picture of the current owner of the business on the anniversary of the garage’s opening for business. There was even a picture of the opening day. Grandfather Smith, fresh from the war, was proudly posing in front of the gas pumps wearing the uniform of the gasoline company.
Although there were still people living in the neighborhood who had been born there, there weren’t many. The demographics of the town had slowly changed over seventy years. Older houses had been torn down, and larger, more modern, houses had been built. An entire block had been bought, and townhouses had replaced the aging structures that had stood along tree lined streets. A younger crowd, somewhat wealthier, had moved into the neighborhood.
Where the town council had once had long-time residents on it, the council seats were now occupied by people who had only been in the area less than twenty years. One of the council members hadn’t even lived in town for five years, yet had managed to get elected. It wasn’t the same town in which John had been raised, but he continued to be a volunteer fireman and support the little league baseball team. The town may have changed, but John and his values hadn’t.
John and Jane returned from a well deserved two week vacation. There was a stack of mail that had been delivered while they were gone. Jane began going through the mail starting basically from the most recent, and working backwards. She didn’t bother to look through the whole stack, knowing that it would only contain bills or junk mail. She intended to work through the items one at a time.
She came upon one official looking letter that had been delivered only the day before. She opened it and read the contents. It was a court order that Smith’s Garage vacate the premises, and the building be torn down to make room for a house that would better fit into the neighborhood. She read it a second time, thinking she must have misunderstood something.
She dug through the mail and found a notice that the town council had passed a new zoning regulation while they had been on vacation. According to the zoning regulation, businesses were now explicitly barred from operating in the neighborhood in which the garage was located. There was another notice that a hearing to get a court order to close the business, which had been scheduled on the previous Monday.
Feeling sick to her stomach, Jane shouted, “John! Come in here!”
John, who had been getting ready to open the garage doors, went into the office to find out why his wife was so excited. He entered the office area to find his wife frantically waving a couple of letters at him. For a moment, he wondered if they had won the Magazine Clearing House Sweepstakes.
His wife shouted, “They’re closing us down.”
“Who is closing us down?” John asked.
“What are you talking about?” John asked.
Jane said, “Read this.”
John read the letters. He stared at them for nearly five minutes trying to organize his thoughts. This could destroy all of their plans for the future. There was no way they could afford to move the little business into a new location. They owned this building and that helped keep the operating costs down. Having to rent a new place somewhere else would kill their profitability. It wasn’t even clear that their customer base would follow them to a new location. Moving was not a viable option.
The odds were good that they would have to close the business. They wouldn’t have a retirement income from it since Jack wouldn’t be able to take the business over. For that matter, Jack would be unemployed. Then it dawned on him that they would all be unemployed. John wondered if he’d even be able to collect unemployment. He’d heard stories of other small businessmen who had lost their businesses not being able to collect unemployment despite having contributed to the state mandated unemployment insurance.
Finally, John decided that there was no way the town could close down a business that had been there for over seventy years.
He said, “They can’t do this.”
Jane had sat at her desk watching John with a worried expression on her face.
Despite the confidence in his voice, she asked, “Are you sure?”
“We’ve been located here for over seventy years. I’m sure that there’s some sort of Grandfather Clause that will prevent them from shutting us down,” John said.
Looking worried, Jane said, “I don’t know about that.”
“I mean, they just can’t decide that they don’t want us here.”
“Is this some sort of eminent domain thing?”
“No. They aren’t taking our property, they are telling us what we can and can’t do on it,” John answered. “There’s a court order requiring us to demolish the building within a year.”
“We weren’t even here to be notified that there was a court hearing,” Jane said. “I’m pretty sure that they can’t hold court proceedings without us having been informed ahead of time.”
“They did it,” John said in disgust.
Starting to feel paranoid, Jane said, “It’s like they waited for us to be out of town before doing this.”
“I know,” John said wondering if they had been specifically targeted.
A quick conversation with a lawyer began a legal process that after three months managed to get the court order over-turned as a result of failing to follow due process. The letter sent had not been registered, and there was no proof that the Smiths had been informed about the hearing. After a separate visit to the court, the zoning change was over-turned as well. The quick insertion of the change into the agenda had meant that those affected by the change had not been given proper notice in order to voice their objections. As far as John was concerned, he had wasted three thousand dollars, although he did get to stay in business over the near-term.
Their paranoia about having been specifically targeted, turned out to be accurate. A new neighbor, one who had moved into a house across the street and two houses down less than six months earlier, was always complaining that the garage was an eyesore and ruined the property values of the whole area. It didn’t matter that the garage was there when he bought the house.
When he had noticed the on vacation sign the Smiths had hung on the front door of the business, he had contacted a member of the town council who he knew agreed with him. The zoning change had been added to the agenda for the council meeting. It had passed with very little discussion, since only two businesses were affected – Smith’s Garage and a little deli located in a small two bedroom house that had been converted into a business. Everyone agreed that having a bunch of cars parked around the garage didn’t look very nice and that the neon sign on the deli didn’t belong in a bedroom community. The businesses had to go for the betterment of the town.
Of course, having the zoning change overruled only angered the members of the city council. Taking a bit more time, they managed to pass an even more restrictive zoning regulation. The council arbitrarily dismissed the statement that the business had been located there for seventy years as irrelevant. They weren’t going to make an exception for one business.