Zoning is dead; long live zoning

We’ve all had someone at the workplace that knew the rule book frontwards and backwards. And in my experience, it wasn’t the person who was cheerful, helpful, and a great team player. Usually, it was the Eeyore of the workplace, always seeing things negatively. When rules get complex, like they do in City planning, Eeyores run amuck.

Consider zoning. Originally designed to separate incompatible land uses (keep the cement plant away from the primary school sort of thing) it got adopted by the bureaucracy. Which accreted additional rules, terms, categories, and subcategories until it was an impenetrable code, a language interpretable only to the select few: the planning priesthood, intoning mumbo jumbo.  Public keep out. (And community associations are very complicit in the game; they love adding new clauses and restrictions — see the new infill guidelines…).

Like the tax code, it grew so cumbersome it became mutually contradictory, less likely to prevent abuses than to foster gaming by the cognoscenti. And in cities like Ottawa, the complex zoning categories seem unique to every lot and site. Instead of planning, the City’s planners spend their time processing applications and pushing paperwork minutiae. Real planning then gets outsourced to the hired guns. Or the over-arching statements of Provincial Planning Directives, and urban Official Plan policy.

Thus the utility of specific lot zoning has been compromised to the point where it is more of a hazard than a good. I have argued here before that we need to simply our zoning code down to a bare few categories, like Residential low rise (1-4 stories), residential high rise, main street urban mixed use, etc. Zero lot lines too.  Instead, the City is stuck with a huge zoning code everyone is defensive about and is proving impossible to keep updated.

So if zoning is dead, what replaces it? Cities seem to turning to a sort of super-zoning that over-rides the lower level zoning, without going through the bother of cleaning up the burdensome texts. Some cities are introducing a macro-zoning that applies to all Mainstreets. It can then simply list the covered streets, and one set of new rules applies. Or it can cheerily leave conflicts in place: the zoning will say 4 stories, the official plan will permit much higher (see, for example, the new Centretown CDP). Decisions are then booted down the road until a development proposal is put forward.

In Ottawa, something similar is happening around our LRT stations. Rather than rezone every lot, the City draws a big circle around each station, identifies the under-utilized and commercial lands, and applies a similar set of zoning rules.This is sellable under the smart growth and transit-oriented-development rubrics.

It is careful to leave out of the pie circle those wedges that contain existing neighbourhoods  thus sidestepping much of the opposition. Those areas will be tidied up later, or left to piecemeal rezoning and official plan amendments for want of a current zoning plan, since it is now fashionable to consider zoning plans to have a de facto expiry date after which they can be safely ignored.

Planning professionals and politicians love the scheme. For any particular development, they get to cut and paste different bits of rules from conflicting documents to establish that a project does (or does not) fit the rules. Infinite flexibility. Rezone low rise houses in Little Italy — meets the Plan ! Rezone expensive low rise houses in Kanata — ooops, lucky you, here a phrase or two extracted from the carpet bag of rules that will keep condo-dwellers out.

The losers, of course are the neighbours who depend on the undependable. And the developers, who are faced with incredible uncertainty as to what is allowed or not. And lets not get to those who want to abolish the OMB (a quasi-judicial court of planning-knowledgeable referees) in favour of the wisdom of local politicians who cannot see beyond their next election campaign (contribution).

Zoning is dead. Long live zoning.


5 thoughts on “Zoning is dead; long live zoning

  1. I am with you until the OMB. Somehow other provinces manage without an oversight board. What makes Ontario so special that it needs one?

  2. I would have thought the confusion and uncertainty around planning benefited developers at the expense of home owners. If a home owner believes that their property is zoned in a way that would prevent a high rise from being built, they would never price their property accordingly when they sell. Developers, who get to sit down with city planners in private meetings to work out what in fact would be allowed to be built on a property, can have a much clearer picture of the true value of a property.

    1. Complex zoning rules and back-room dealing amounts to a means of transferring wealth from home owners to developers. Complexity always favors the wealthy, because it costs to navigate it which excludes those without means, and also because there is much more slack in such a system; those in charge can always find a rule or reason to do the thing agreed to secretly.

  3. I know you said you didn’t want to get into it but . . . I am one of those ‘crazies’ who think the OMB should go. I believe it is exactly what causes municipalities to have the mushy zoning and development regulations that you describe.

    The cities that I have lived in outside of Ontario are all much more strict about zoning and development and make it very difficult to rezone a single lot, because they develop, establish and enforce their own rules and regulations. The City of Ottawa (and other Ontario municipalities) are constantly looking over their shoulder at the OMB. They have to take into consideration what the OMB might say, or if they might have to go to the OMB (Do we really want to go to the OMB, or should we just let them build it?). There is no point in taking a hard line stance on anything, because whatever the city decides can just be turned over by the OMB anyway.

    It also means they have to play games and be strategic in their zoning. In order to ensure that buildings won’t go over 10 storeys in an area they have to one for 6 because the OMB always ‘compromises’ with developers.

    I believe that individual municipalities should have the power to create their own plans, zone accordingly and then enforce that zoning. Outsiders shouldn’t have the power to say what is ‘best’ for an independent municipality. Clearly, this would require establishing real concrete zoning regulations that are not changeable on a whim or on a project by project basis (as seems to be the current situation). Establishing clear rules about when and how zoning is changed can take the short term thinking for political benefit out of the equation.

    I understand the idea was that the OMB would be an impartial body, doing what is ‘best’ for cities, with a long term vision. But honestly, the OMB has the potential to be just as corrupt as any group of politicians – in fact, it is likely easier to bribe the OMB than a politician. In too many cases that I have seen, the OMB’s impartiality translates into not caring. They always want to create a ‘win-win’, and developers know how to exploit that. I have nothing at all against development or intensification, but I believe that developers should have real rules to work within. Each and every project shouldn’t include negotiations for amendments to the zoning regulations.

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