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Are you in the right ‘Zone’?

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An overview to municipal zoning regulations

A quick guide to municipal zoning regulations.

Just because yo own a property doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want with it. The Zoning by-law governs what may or may not be allowed on your property.

Zoning is a great mystery to many people. Zoning is  document set out by the provincial government which each municipality adapts to suit their needs. A zoning by-law outlines the rules of what kind of activities can occur on various properties. It helps to control growth and city organization. Most municipalities have their zoning by-law available online, but it may seem like Greek to most people. 

The zoning by-law document it divided into four major sections:

  • Definitions: where most of the terms are defined. This area is critical to clarifying what a term like  “agriculture and related” uses might be. This is a common term found in agriculture zones. And the definition will be different for every municipality.
  • General Provisions: these rules apply to all properties and are general in nature. You would find parking and loading requirements, minimum landscaping, barrier-free requirements, site lighting, etc.
  • A section for each zone: for example A-1, R-2, C-5, these all stand for different areas designated in the zoning maps. A-1 is often the classification for Agriculture lands, but you might find A-2, or natural heritage in the county. Each section describes the specific requirements for each zone in the by-law. It will outline a specific list of “permitted uses” parking requirements, setbacks, minimum lot size, and other restrictions on a property designated by the zone code. It may also outline special provisions that are property specific (this is where many agritourism permissions are given).
  • Maps: The maps show what property is designated what zone code. The maps are often found as a separate download. First you use the overall map to determine which sub-map your property is located. Your property will then be outlined are part of a larger outline with a code on it like A-1, or NH-2. This tells you which section of the zoning by-law to read for specific information

For many small municipalities the zoning by-law is 20-40 years old and was designed to protect large plots of farmland. As agriculture has changed they have tweaked the by-law to add things like minimum distance separations, or other minor tweaks. But most municipalities haven’t made major changes to allow agritourism to occur in A-1 lands. It is often even an undefined term in the by-law and you are meant to read between the lines at the intentions of the by-law to determine if your agritourism use is permitted. Therefore each municipality may interpret the intentions of their by-law differently and thus different activities are permitted from municipality to municipality. 

Recently the Ontario Planning Policy made revisions to the Provincial policy, which all municipalities are to adopt and incorporate into their planning policy. These revisions have allowed for agritourism and economic development of rural areas. But not all municipalities, especially the small townships with limited resources, have updated their own to reflect that. 

So how do you know if you can open that winery, or farm gate stand? Well you can read the zoning by-law yourself, have a meeting with the township (which hopefully won’t raise red flags), or hire a planner or architect to help you interpret the by-law. 

And what do you do if your agritourism project is not permitted? Often Municipalities, especially ones without planners on staff, are there to just interpret and enforce the by-law, and a plain “no” might be the result of your meeting. Small municipalities don’t always have the capacity to say “no, but this is how we can help you achieve your project”.  That’s where the architect and the planner come in to help you review up front what you might be getting into and perhaps re-frame your project to better suit the zone before meeting with the municipality. There are a few routes you can take if at first look your use is not permitted:

  1. Creative interpretation: Look at the by-law a bit more creatively and see if there might be an alternative way to look at your use or adjust your description that makes it a permitted use for your zone. This takes some experience and negotiations with a co-operative municipality.
  2. A minor variance: this process is relatively simple and can work where a municipality by-law has no wiggle room, but they want to encourage your project, so they will add special provisions for your property and project to allow it. This process can take anywhere from 3 months to a year.
  3. Rezoning: This step is drastic and very involved and not always successful. A rezoning involves completely changing the zone code for a property to one that is more suitable and allows the type of use you want. This process can take anywhere from 6 months to a year and will involve planners, architects, and the Municipality. This step should be undertaken only if there is stall, council and community support as the A-1 zone is set in place for farmland protection and not taken lightly to change.

Hopefully that helps you understand the basics of zoning and what you might be getting into. 

VELD architect offers an Authorities review at low costs to get you started. We review the zoning, official plan, conservation authorities, and building code related to your project so you know exactly what you are walking into before you start! Contact us if this might be useful to you.

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