Zoning inflation: the Shania Twain effect

An interesting feature (bug?) of Ontario's land planning rules is how prescriptive our zoning rules can be. For instance as the applicants for D08-02-16/A-00037 (at Committee of Adjustment) have discovered, yes, you can have a reception area in a commercial building but no, it cannot be within 6 metres of the front wall of the building.

If we had fixed rules for fixed reasons that would be the end of the line. But we don't have fixed rules for fixed reasons. We have zoning. This is not the end of the line; the next step is to ask for the very prescriptive rule to be lifted. I can't see how D08-02-16/A-00037 will be denied and I'm fine with that.

But then what happens? Well the thing that happens is a thing called zoning inflation: the rate at which unique and single-instance zoning rules are created.

The good news is the City of Ottawa has a fantastic GIS system that can keep track of all of these zoning exceptions. The bad news is it has more and more unique zonings to keep track of. Is that a good thing?

In April 2015 I obtained a snapshot of the zoning database and there were 3821 unique zoning codes. Today there are 3997, a 4.6% increase in 10 months. Let's randomly look at a few of these new zoning codes.

MySQL database dumps of the two snapshots are available for the nerd set. A summary spreadsheet is here for the non SQL nerd set.


This is a traditional mainstreet (TM) zoning specific to the Wellington Street Subzone (11) with exception 2297 "No broadcasting antenna or external public address system is permitted in association with a broadcasting studio", created by By-law 2015-329 after Council approved the rezoning application.


This is a residential 4th density (R4)  zoning specific to the Retirement Home & Rooming house subzone (E) with exception 1137, but I can't figure out what the "-c" means. The exception is below. I can't easily find how this unique combination of zoning rules was concocted. 

minimum southerly interior side yard setback for the existing building and any addition thereto must be 0.6 m plus the sum of:  (i) 0.7 m per storey over the second storey; and (ii) 0.2 m per metre of building length in excess of 21 m parallel to the interior side lot line, provided that where access to parking is provided in an interior side yard, the minimum width of the said interior side yard must be the greater of 3 m or the above combination of building height and length

I didn't pick these zoning codes for any reason; they just sorted themselves to the top of the spreadsheet I'm working from that compares the frequency and total area of the zoning codes between April 2015 and today.

This story isn't about any particular changes, or their merits. At the individual level all of the requests are likely reasonable and result from individuals asking for a specific rezoning either at council or Committee of Adjustment.

This story is about what happens at the aggregate level.

To the database-mobile!

Biggest loser: the zoning code that lost the most, in terms of total area moved to another use, is Rural Countryside Zone (RU), though it only lost 0.94% of its total. This sounds like sprawl in action. I'll be interested in seeing the march of RU being converted to other things over time (which is why I grab snapshots from time-to-time).

Biggest winner: meanwhile Environmental Protection Zone 3 (EP3) gained the most in absolute area, with an increased coverage of 2.3%. People can still build homes in EP3. I wonder what the previous zoning was on these lands? I could check, but that's a story for another day.

Biggest newbie: looking at the new zoning codes, the one with the largest total area is RU[806r]. I'm going to guess, in lieu of actually confirming, that this land was previously just RU and someone carved out a new exception. On the Rural Exception list 806r is listed as:

For a period of one day, being June 27, 2015 the following applies:
(i) the uses and provisions of exception 286r apply; and,
(ii) theatre is a permitted use.
-On expiration of the temporary zoning, the lands subject to exception [806r] are rezoned back to RU[286r].

Ha ha ha. This story started with a boring title, but after stumbling across this beautiful nugget, I have just renamed it "Zoning inflation: the Shania Twain Effect". Ottawa Citizen has the explainer.

Another fun fact is the zoning death is written into the enacted by-law already. So if I do this story again sometime (now I have to), we can expect to find RU[806r] listed as one of the biggest losers in total area as the zoning reverts to whatever it was before.

Biggest zombie: looking at zoning codes that have disappeared, the one with largest total area is RU[286r]. So it looks like the Twain lands came from 286r in the first place? I'll skip to the next one so it's not All Twain All the Time.

The second biggest dissappearing zone code is RH[787r]-h, which is Rural Heavy Industrial Zone (RH) exception 787r and no idea what "-h" means. It concerns a solid waste disposal facility. I'll spare you the cut-and-paste of the exception which you can read here. My guess is the design of whatever they wanted to build didn't meet the setback requiements, so they carved out new setbacks FTW.

Oh the complex web we weave.

Let's step back for a second and marvel at how the city purrs along doing its thing.

People want to build things or do things and discover they aren't within the rules. They apply for changes. The changes are approved. Staff write the by-laws that give effect to the approvals. Those by-laws receive three readings at a subsquent Council meeting. News of this makes its way down into the bowels of government and people peck at keyboards updating the published zonings as well as updating the GIS systems and who knows what else.

Nobody should ever say government is broken or it doesn't work. It hums very nicely doing it's thing. It's a marvel.

Destiny or fate?

I'll end the story with, well, no opinion.

Is marching towards ever more granular zoning definitions a normal and positive outcome of good planning systems? Or should the city (and probably the province) introduce some corrective measures, perhaps allowing that re-zoning applications should be applied more broadly, saving future applicates time and money?

If a reduced setback of 0.6m is good for the goose, maybe apply it automatically to the gander, and save the gander $15k?

I don't know, but it's food for thought.

How long will it be until every spec of land in Ottawa is its own special zoning snowflake?

[1] Zoning codes sometimes present with a "*_" prefix which I've eliminated for the purpose of this review, so "*_R4" is treated as just "R4" in my calculations.


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2016-02-29 11:59

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