The Essential Municipal Development Approval Q&A
So, you’re planning to build a brand new gas bar, carwash, c-store, retail or industrial location on vacant green or brown site property. And you’ve found what seems to be the perfect location. Let the construction begin so the profits can start rolling in!
Not so fast. Before you can start developing your property you will need to get land use approval from the municipality. In most Canadian provinces, you require a Development Process Permit. In Ontario, it is referred to as a Site Plan Control Agreement.
To help shed some light on how the process works, what you can expect and potential unexpected surprises, we’ve shared answers to some commonly asked questions around municipal development approval.
Q. What is the primary purpose of the land use approval process?
Municipalities create high level plans that guide development in their jurisdiction. The process is about ensuring any new development conforms to desired land use or zoning design guidelines. At this stage in the approval process, the focus is on the building’s Form and Function.
The municipality is also seeking assurance that you are working with registered professionals to develop the architectural, design, engineering and landscaping plans.
Q. What is meant by Form and Function?
In terms of Function, the municipality will want to know what type of business you intend to open, what products or services you will be selling and what kind of customers you will serve. In some instances, there may be restrictions against certain types of businesses moving in.
Form refers to the exterior look and design of the building. Often guidelines exist around maximum height of buildings and structures (such as a gas bar canopy) and the footprint (square footage and floor area ratio).
Exterior design and signage may also be subject to approval – particularly in areas where Architectural Controls are in place. Your building’s impact on the community and traffic network is also a factor.
Q. Are land use and zoning guidelines standardized across the country?
No. They can vary significantly from province to province. While many of the processes and requirements tend to be uniform throughout an entire province, some land use designations and approval requirements can be quite different from one municipality to the next.
Q. Which departments are usually involved in the process?
In addition to the Planning and Development department, input may be required from the Transportation Department, Parks, Public Works and sometimes the Police. In cases involving Architectural Controls, a local Design Council or Advisory Panel may play a central role (see below).
Q. Can a municipality dictate how your building should look?
In some cases, distinct areas within a town or city may have very specific Architectural Guidelines and Controls in place to preserve the unique character of the community.
For example, in many mountain or alpine-themed communities you will see national brand gas stations that are built with timber-style finishes to complement the natural surroundings. Controls are also common in historical areas where there is cohesive look or feel (eg. brickwork). In such instances, the design firm is required to think outside of the box in order to adapt the standard store look – while ensuring the brand remains recognizable.
In such instances, the community may have a Design Council or Advisory Panel that is involved in the approval process. This adds another layer to the process, and communities can be very protective of their image and aesthetic. There may be some back and forth and compromise, but an experienced design and architectural firm can help you find amicable solutions that satisfy both sides – and make you store one-of-a-kind.
Q. What submissions must be made as part of the approval process?
Again, this can vary dramatically from one municipality to the next.
A basic submission package may simply require elevations of above ground structures, an existing site plan, a proposed site plan, a floor plan and a landscaping plan.
Sometimes the requirements are more demanding (such as cases involving Architectural Guidelines and Controls). You may be asked to provide renderings, 3D models, material boards indicating finishes, signage options… even traffic and noise studies.
Here’s an interesting example. There are certain regions within the province of BC where archeological assessments are a requirement of the development process (as mandated by the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations) as they have been deemed to be within an area where there is high probability of existing archeological artifacts.
Q. Is the process usually straightforward? Can complications arise?
The vast majority of development submissions are very straightforward and are approved in an efficient and timely manner. That being said, there are exceptions. We worked on one project that took three years to get the development approval. One of our current clients is facing a formal protest to his gas station application by residents in a new community, despite the fact the land had been zoned for that purposed for over 20 years.
Q. Is it the business owner’s responsibility to determine the zoning and development guidelines and bylaws?
You’ll be glad to hear this is expertise you architectural and design firm will bring to the table. Experienced firms know how to read and interpret all applicable bylaws, controls and guidelines to ensure your building conforms. Be sure to choose one that has worked in your area and has experience navigating the municipal approval process.