What's the Zoning By-law, and how will it affect you?

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Do you care about your home and the community that you live in? Do you consider yourself an active and engaged citizen? Have you ever wanted to make your community a better, greener, and healthier place to live? If you’ve answered yes to any of the above, then you should pay attention to the City of Ottawa’s first draft of the New Zoning By-law. 

Scheduled to be released on the City of Ottawa’s Zoning By-law Project Page on Friday, May 31, 2024, the first draft of the New Zoning By-law is a pivotal document that will shape the future of every single community in Ottawa. Whether you own property, rent, or simply live in Ottawa, the New Zoning By-law affects you. Zoning by-laws influence everything from housing availability and affordability to the character of neighbourhoods, and even the environmental health of our city; they truly have the power to directly impact the daily lives of everyone in our city. 

As a city, we are facing an opportunity to really make a difference! As we all try to navigate the details of this comprehensive zoning overhaul, it is crucial for everyone in Ottawa to understand the implications of the New Zoning By-law and to participate in the public consultation process. By first developing an understanding of how zoning by-laws work, and by understanding how Ottawa’s Zoning By-law affects individual properties, engaged and prepared residents can apply a local, equitable, and environmentally sustainable lens to evaluate the first draft of the New Zoning By-law and provide valuable feedback to the City planners working on this project. 

What are Zoning By-laws and How Do They Work?

The Planning Act requires municipalities in Ontario to use two different types of documents to determine how development should occur; these two types of documents are known as official plans and zoning by-laws. Official plans provide the broad vision and policy framework for the city's development while zoning by-laws translate the broad policies of official plans into more granular regulations. For example, if the official plan designates an area as industrial, the zoning by-law will list out the specific industrial uses that are permitted, and the specific performance standards that apply, for every individual property within that area. Performance standards refer to the rules about how the physical building can be built, such as maximum building heights, minimum distances from lot lines buildings, and maximum lot coverage. 

Zoning by-laws are structured around different "zones," which are categories of similar or compatible land uses that are associated with the same specific performance standards; these zones are applied to the land in a municipality via zoning maps. 

What the GeoOttawa zoning map looks like for a neighbourhood in Kanata

What the GeoOttawa zoning map looks like for a neighbourhood in Kanata (Source:geoOttawa )

Some zones are further differentiated into subzones (e.g., R4B – which refers to Subzone B of the Residential Fourth Density Zone), which may feature variations on the types of uses that are permitted and the performance standards that apply. Some properties also feature special exceptions, which are special rules that apply only to a specific property (e.g., R1O [511] – which refers to the Residential First Density Zone, Subzone O, Special Exception 511, a special exception that adds a medical clinic as an additional permitted use). 

The text of a zoning by-law can seem difficult to navigate. Based on the table of contents of the New Zoning By-law, the structure of the current Zoning By-law is largely the same. The components of a zoning by-law generally include:

Zoning by-laws must conform to official plans and new zoning by-laws must be created if a new official plan is adopted in order to ensure that development aligns with the city's strategic goals. In Ottawa, a new Official Plan came into effect in 2022 after a multi-year public consultation and approval process. The new Official Plan introduced the 5 Big Moves, a new set of strategic directions to guide Ottawa’s growth through planning policies that aim to promote intensification, sustainable transportation, good urbanism, climate resiliency, and economic development. The New Zoning By-law will reflect these updated policy directives and provide the regulatory framework to achieve the Official Plan’s vision. The New Zoning By-law will replace the existing Zoning By-law, which was adopted some 16 years ago.

The New Official Plan’s 5 Big Moves

The New Official Plan’s 5 Big Moves (Source: Section 1. Introduction (ottawa.ca))

Finally, it is important to note that when a municipality adopts a zoning by-law, it is not necessarily a strict, static blueprint for future development. Zoning by-laws are often amended to allow for specific development proposals to proceed – this is a normal part of growth in a city, and amendments are subject to a public consultation process.

Big Changes are Being Proposed 

Although the full text of the first draft of the New Zoning By-law will only be released on May 31st, City staff have released details on what changes can be expected. Ecology Ottawa’s own William van Geest and Dan Rutabingwa Gakire gave two delegations at the joint meeting of City Council’s Planning and Housing Committee and Agricultural and Rural Affairs on April 29th in response to those released details; in particular, William and Dan Rutabingwa spoke about how incoming New Zoning By-law provisions relating to impervious surfaces and car parking regulations could be improved. Although the New Zoning By-law does seem like it is moving towards more environmentally sustainable provisions that promote density, encourage more transit-oriented development, reduce impervious surfaces, and eliminate car parking minimums, there are always opportunities to make those provisions even better. It’s everyone’s responsibility to participate in local democratic processes and to promote environmentally sustainable growth. 

When the first draft of the New Zoning By-law comes out, the biggest change that Ottawans should pay attention to is the shift from traditional Residential Zones to new Neighbourhood Zones. Neighbourhood Zones are designed to be more flexible, encouraging the development of a mix of uses (e.g., neighbourhood pharmacies, corner stores and ice cream shops in residential areas) that can fit into existing neighbourhoods. This change has the potential to create more convenient and walkable neighbourhoods – something that the staff at Ecology Ottawa have long been advocating for. Embracing policies and zoning provisions that allow people to meet their needs without a car is essential to unlocking a climate-safe, healthier and more vibrant future. 

Can you access all these services and amenities in your neighbourhood without a car? 

Can you access all these services and amenities in your neighbourhood without a car? (Source: Section 2. Strategic Directions (ottawa.ca))

If you currently live in a Residential Zone, I encourage you to take a close look at these changes. Think about whether or not the permitted uses are flexible enough to set the stage for a future where you’d be able to enjoy the services and amenities that you want without having to drive. Think about whether children, seniors, or people with disabilities can enjoy the conveniences of a walkable neighbourhood. There are so many benefits to having walkable neighbourhoods – by participating in the public consultation process for the New Zoning By-law, you have a real opportunity to make our communities greener, safer, healthier, and happier by advocating for more complete communities.

The many benefits of walkable neighbourhoods

The many benefits of walkable neighbourhoods (Source: 15-Minute Neighbourhoods - Ecology Ottawa)

Doing Your Homework

An easy way to approach the New Zoning By-law is to focus on where you live and explore how the rules about your home are changing. For those interested in comparing the New Zoning By-law provisions to the existing ones, here are some easy steps to follow:

1. Visit GeoOttawa:

  • Go to GeoOttawa.
  • Use the address search bar to locate your property.
  • Click on your property to see its current zoning details

2. Check Existing Zoning By-law:

  • Go to the City of Ottawa Zoning By-law 2008-250 Consolidation.
  • Here, you can find detailed information about the current zoning regulations that apply to your property.

3. Review the New Zoning By-law Draft:

  • On May 31, 2024, visit the City of Ottawa’s Zoning By-law Project Page to access the new draft.
  • The zoning map will likely be in a PDF format, so you may need to zoom in to find out what the new zoning is. 
  • Compare the proposed changes with the current zoning details you gathered from GeoOttawa and the existing by-law.

By following these steps, you can see exactly how the new zoning by-law might change what is allowed on your property and in your neighbourhood.

Why Your Participation Matters and How to Participate

The release of the first draft of the New Zoning By-law is the beginning of a two-year consultation and approval process. Eventually, second and third drafts (along with further opportunities for public consultations) will be released in 2025 before the New Zoning By-law eventually gets adopted. You can expect the City to hold a number of public consultation events, with the first on June 20. You can subscribe to the City of Ottawa’s Zoning By-law Project Page to keep track of consultation events happening in the city; it’s also likely that there will be some form of online consultation or survey. Of course, you can also just email the planners directly with your comments. 

Public input is vital to ensure that the by-law reflects the needs and aspirations of Ottawa’s residents. Here's why you should get involved:

  • Environmental Advocacy: Your voice can make a real difference when it comes to how sustainable our city will be in the future! Help strengthen provisions that promote tree canopy coverage, foster transit-oriented development, and create more liveable neighbourhoods.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Even if you agree with the proposed changes, it is crucial to provide feedback. City planners need to know that they are on the right track and Councillors need to know what their constituents want. Without positive reinforcement, supportive voices might go unheard.
  • Awareness and Influence: Don't miss out on understanding how these decisions are made. Engage now to avoid the frustration of asking, "When did this get decided?"

Conclusion

The first draft of Ottawa's New Zoning By-law represents a significant opportunity for residents to shape the future of our city. By understanding its importance, how it works, and the new provisions it includes, and by participating in the public consultation process, you can help ensure that the final by-law meets the needs of our community today and for generations to come. Your feedback, whether in support or expressing concerns, is essential to guide the city in the right direction. 

 

Jeffrey Ren is a law student, an urban planner, and a board member with Ecology Ottawa.

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