How to Move Your Home Renovation Forward with Municipal Approvals

RenovationImageYou finally have enough saved to start that home renovation. You are ready to build the extension and drive in the first nail.  Before breaking a sweat you decide to contact your friend to lend a hand.  You share your exciting plans with him and he informs you that you may need permission − not from your family − but from your municipality.  Where do you start?

Your friend explains that depending on the nature of your project, you will likely need a building permit from the municipality and will need to apply for a variance from the local Committee of Adjustment (CoA).  To appear before the CoA, you will need to complete a CoA application and include a description of your proposal and a review of the Zoning By-law, among other things.

A Zoning By-law is a municipal regulation that controls the use of land in a community. If a land use, such as a single family home, is prohibited by the Zoning By-law then it is not allowed.  The Zoning By-law also establishes more specific requirements, including exactly where buildings and other structures can be located, lot size and dimension, building height and setbacks from the street. In a practical sense, the Zoning By-law dictates what you can do on your property.  You will also need an authorization form signed by all registered owners of your property, have to pay an application fee and need to prepare scaled plans of your proposal for review. It is also advisable for you to obtain a ‘preliminary project review/pre-application applicable law review’ to identify all aspects of your proposal that don’t comply with the Zoning By-law and to determine if other approvals are required.

Unless you are an urban planner, architect, property developer, municipal planning lawyer or have been involved in a construction project that requires municipal permitting before, you are likely unfamiliar with the municipal development approvals process.

A CoA is appointed by municipal council.  It is authorized by the Ontario Planning Act to grant minor variances from the provisions of the Zoning By-law, to permit extensions, enlargements or variations of existing legal non-conforming uses, and give consent to a land owner who wishes to sell, convey or transfer an interest part of their land. The CoA is also authorized to provide consent for terms of an agreement, such as a mortgage, easement or lease that commits land to a use for a period exceeding 21 years. And the CoA has the authority to issue a “certificate of validation” and to give “approval of a foreclosure of or an exercise of a power of sale in a mortgage or charge.”

If you are appearing before the CoA for your renovation project, you are likely seeking approval for a minor variance from the Zoning By-law or permission to extend or enlarge a legal non-conforming use.  As seeking approvals for extending or enlarging legal non-conforming uses can be complex, I will limit this post’s focus to minor variances.

If for example, you plan to enlarge your kitchen and this involves moving an exterior wall closer to your neighbour’s property than the minimum 0.5 metre side yard separation required by the Zoning By-law, you cannot obtain a building permit for construction without first applying to, and receiving, a minor variance from Zoning By-law, through the CoA.

How do you maximize your chances of success at a CoA meeting about your minor variance application? Here are some key steps:

1. Educate yourself – Go to your Municipality’s website and review the CoA’s role, hearing procedures and authority. Next, review the Zoning By-law for your location and familiarize yourself with the requirements.  Finally, review the Official Plan to gain a better understanding of your municipality’s urban growth and development philosophy. The information you learn will be invaluable.

2. Consult your local councillor and municipality – If you haven’t done so already, speak with the municipal building and planning departments.  They can give you further guidance, input and clarification about your project and CoA procedures. Alternatively, consider retaining a professional, such as a land use planner, to represent you at the CoA meeting. Land use planners routinely deal with CoA meetings and are familiar with CoA procedures, as well as planning legislation and regulations.

Next, talk to your local municipal councillor about your project − from constructing a garage or bedroom to extending your kitchen or constructing a gazebo in your backyard. Councillors are familiar with neighbourhood sensitivities and will be able to shed light on where the opposition, if any, will come from.  They also understand CoA procedures and may be able to provide good advice. Be sure to ask them what you can do to ensure your project is most suitable for your neighbourhood.  Your councillor will appreciate your professionalism and candor.  It will also prepare them to respond to your neighbour’s potential concerns.  Of course, you will then heed the councillor’s advice, present yourself professionally and express a genuine concern for your neighbours’ interests and how your project fits the neighbourhood’s character. 

3. Attend a CoA meeting in advance – If you have time, attend a CoA meeting.  A schedule should be posted on your municipality’s website but if not, contact them and inquire.  At the meeting, pay attention to the process, the questions the CoA asks, as well as any concerns and recommendations it raises.  Also consider the issues, concerns and recommendations voiced by the public.  Take notes and think about how this information applies to your project.  

The CoA schedule typically cites the purpose or nature of the application; find an application for a project similar to yours and attend that meeting.  CoA applications are available for public review.  It is also a good idea to review existing applications on file to get a sense of the information provided by applicants with similar projects.

4. Share your proposed project – Honesty is the best policy.  Discuss your plans with your neighbours and other homeowners on your street.  It is always best to be transparent about your plans, particularly with the people who may be directly affected by your project.

Legally, the Planning Act requires municipalities to notify all registered property owners within 60 metres of your property about your CoA application.  It’s best for these people hear about your project from you early on, rather than being surprised by a legal notice from your municipality.

When meeting with your neighbours, discuss any issues they might have and try to resolve as many of their concerns as possible. This is easier said than done and depends on the relationship you have with your neighbours, but it doesn’t hurt to try in good faith.

The CoA will be pleased you sought input from your neighbours, who in turn, will appreciate your willingness to hear their perspective.

5. Prepare a presentation – Be ready to provide an overview of your proposal at the CoA meeting and to articulate why you believe it should be granted approval.  Before approving a Minor Variance, the CoA must satisfy itself that the proposal meets the four tests in the Planning Act pursuant to section 45(1).  State how your proposal satisfies each of the tests.

The four tests are that the variance is:

  • Minor in nature
  • Desirable for the appropriate development or use of the land,
    building or structure
  • In keeping with the general intent of the Zoning By-law
  • In keeping with the general intent of the Official Plan

If possible, include visual materials, such as architectural renderings, images of your home, your neighbour’s home, your street and neighbourhood’s character.  It is also a good idea to take photographs of similar projects that other nearby homeowners have undertaken. This will provide members of the CoA with additional information and support your position.

6. Prepare responses to potential concerns – Prepare to address the Committee’s concerns, which should focus on the four tests cited (step 5).  Determine how your proposal passes each test.  Then, be ready to address your neighbours’ concerns about your proposal and the impact it has on their property, lifestyle, privacy, etc.  Also be set to address the affect your project may have on the neighbourhood’s character.  Hopefully no concerns will come as a surprise, as they should have been raised during your initial consultation (step 2).

7. Be organized – Find out how many members sit on your municipality’s CoA.  Bring sufficient copies of your presentation and other supporting materials for each committee member; ensure they are neat, well organized and free of spelling mistakes.

8. Look professional, act professional – First impressions count.  Wear professional attire and use formal language. Listen to all points of view and be courteous at all times.

Do you think your upcoming renovation requires municipal approval? If so, please contact us if you have questions or would like a professional land use planner to represent you at the CoA meeting. 

(Note: This post was initially published on December 13, 2011 but re-issued in February 2013 due to timely relevance.)

AS Cropped photo for blogAndrzej Schreyer , R.P.P. is a senior land use and environmental planner with Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited and a member of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute and the Canadian Institute of Planners.  His experience includes developing and implementing public participation and communication plans, managing social impact assessments and land use studies in support of infrastructure projects and preparing community-based strategic plans.

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About Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited

Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL) is a multidisciplinary strategic planning and public affairs consultancy, focused on environmental and land use planning, stakeholder relations (including communications, facilitation, public consultation and engagement), socio-economic impact assessment, communications, engineering and related services. We have the expertise to predict and decipher technical and public policy issues, and significant experience mitigating them, building consensus and attaining even the most complex approvals. For more information, visit www.hardystevenson.com
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