Zoning 101

Source: University of Florida

Zoning regulations are the rules of the game if you — or a developer — want to construct a building. Whether in the fight against inappropriate development or the pursuit of new heights and densities, zoning is where the buck stops.

The challenge is understanding those rules, which basically involves interpreting an alphabet soup.

Here’s how to get started.

What is zoning?

Zoning contains the nitty gritty details of how the city’s overall vision for growth and development (ie. its Official Plan) should be translated at the individual property level. Zoning is a set of standards dictating the shape of a building and what the building can be used for. This includes things like the structure’s height, how close it can be to the property line, how many parking spaces are required and what kinds of businesses (if any) can be located there.

Equitable Building. Source: Elisa.rolle, Wikimedia Commons

Why does zoning exist?

Zoning is meant to protect neighbourhoods. It provides a degree of predictability in how your community will evolve — if you know the zoning for your area, you will have a reasonable idea of what could be built there. It is also useful for separating land uses, such as ensuring residential homes aren’t built in the midst of industrial factories, and that farmland is protected for agricultural use. The very first comprehensive zoning ordinance was established in New York City in 1916 in response to the construction of a tower — the Equitable Building — that covered its entire lot, blocking neighbouring windows and casting an enormous shadow across seven acres.

Is zoning set in stone?

No. People can apply to change the zoning on a property or properties (this usually happens when a developer’s idea doesn’t fit into the rules the city set out). The applicant has to pay fees and provide studies explaining why the change is warranted and how it fits into the city’s overall planning vision. Public consultation is a part of any rezoning request, and the new zoning has to be voted on by the city’s planning committee and city council.

How do I figure out the zoning for an area I’m interested in?

Besides the (hundreds of pages of) rules, zoning regulations come with a map. Many cities have interactive maps that include zoning information, such as GeoOttawa. The zoning for a property you’re interested in will resemble a code, starting with a letter. “R” refers to residential zones, while “I” refers to institutional zones (schools, churches, etc.). “TM” defines a traditional main street zone, “GM” is general mixed use, “O” is for open space and parks…

I found the zoning, but what the hell does it mean?

There are a total of 39 zones in the city of Ottawa, and each of those zones can contain a number of subzones with additional specific regulations that apply only to certain locations. It’s literally hundreds of pages of brain-melting rules for things like this: R5Q[242] S89A S89B h1 h2

Source: giphy

So let’s beak it down.

By the way, this is the zoning for 400 Albert St. in Ottawa.

R is the main zone — residential. The 5 indicates that it’s residential fifth density, which is the category for mid- or high-rise apartments.
Q is a subzone. It has specific rules that only apply to a small number of properties (sometimes only one lot) in a certain area. That could include certain additional uses that are either permitted or prohibited, beyond what the standard R5 zone allows. It also sets more specific “performance standards” — criteria that must be met, such as the minimum and maximum building height, setbacks from property lines and more.
[242] — a number in square brackets — refers to an exception. These can be found in a separate section of the zoning bylaw that lists specific tweaks, usually resulting from a city council decision or an Ontario Municipal Board appeal resolution. In this case, the exception lists a series of specific provisions for this lot that override the main R5Q zone provisions. Still with me? This can happen when the city approves a request from a developer to put new zoning rules in place for that property that are specific to a particular development project the owner wants to build.
S89A and S89B help make everything clearer. These refer to “schedules,” which are maps, plans or other documents that clarify and lay out things like the super complex exception above.
h is a holding zone. This means that there are additional hurdles the developer will have to jump before it can proceed. The developer must apply to the city to “remove” the “h” holding symbol and provide additional studies and plans, such as mitigation of environmental impacts, geological testing, or assurance that infrastructure is adequate to accommodate the development.

So, there you have it: R5Q[242] S89A S89B h1 h2. Luckily, most zones are simpler than that.

Source: Google Maps

There’s no denying that zoning can be mind-numbingly tedious and complex.

But understanding zoning regulations enables you to see how your neighbourhood will be shaped. It empowers you to understand what was envisioned for an area or property and to identify how that differs from what a developer is proposing. You just have to crack the code.