Purchasing Property? Do Your Research!
As we’ve touched on in other blog entries, people that are resistant to any type of development taking place near their home are referred to as NIMBYs (Not in my backyard). While the NIMBY moniker is certainly a pejorative term, some NIMBYs tend to embrace this stance if it means the protection of the value of their home or the area surrounding it. They may use the argument that the price of their home will plummet if the proposed development becomes a reality. And if argued in a succinct and eloquent manner, these people may be able to convince the leaders of their community that they are not simply trumpeting a selfish agenda, but rather arguing for the rights of landowners everywhere – that their plight is symbolic of a greater symptom of the infringement of property rights. After all, on the surface it seems pretty unfair. No development seems practical or worthwhile if surrounding landowners end up losing thousands of dollars on the value of their homes.
However, is there something that these landowners should have known about the area before they purchased their property? Is there an onus on the purchaser of a property to understand how future land use planning may or may not affect their potential investment? There is more to a piece of land than its zone category or the buildings and structures that are on it. When purchasing a home or property, one must always exercise due diligence and understand everything about the property and the properties that surround it. Getting all of the information prior to purchase could mean the difference between fighting the construction of a road behind your house, or enjoying years of peace and quiet in your backyard.
What to Look for in a Property
If you’re purchasing a house or piece of property, you will want to consult two principal municipal documents – the official plan and the zoning by-law. There may be other documents such as secondary plans or growth studies that may also be relevant to your research. However, the official plan and zoning by-law will be your main sources of information, and will be the best place to start.
1. Official Plan
The official plan is the primary land use planning policy document for the municipality. Usually written with a 20-year outlook, the official plan will guide certain uses to certain areas. It will show where future roads may go, or where future commercial development is expected to be located. Clusters or areas of the municipality where there is generally a certain type of land use are given a designation such as residential or commercial. Land use designations are generally not property specific and will cover areas, rather than individual properties. This means that if there are several residential dwellings surrounded by commercial properties on either side, the area would most likely be designated for commercial uses, notwithstanding the few residential properties that may still be located within the designation. One of the objectives of designating areas is to separate land uses that should not be mixed (i.e. separate industrial uses from sensitive land uses such as residential).
When purchasing, it is important that you determine in which designation your potential property is located. Is it located in a designation in which it no longer conforms (i.e. a dwelling located in a commercially designated area)? If this is the case, you may continue to use the property for what it is currently being used for. However, the possibility of conflicting land uses being developed around you will always be imminent. It also may be more difficult to undertake expansions to the existing building or add accessory buildings.
Another useful piece of information to obtain prior to purchasing is the status of the roads and transportation network surrounding the potential property. The official plan should include a transportation plan that will outline arterial (high capacity) roads, collector (medium capacity) roads, and local (low capacity) roads. The plan will also show where proposed extensions and expansions of roads are expected to occur. Using this information, you can determine, for example, if your property will be located next to a potential future road, or if the property is located on a road that is slated for widening. Furthermore, in cities with large public transportation networks, a transportation plan may include a map showing future transit stops that could potentially add value to a nearby property.
An official plan may also include areas – particularly in more rural settings – that have been identified as having some sort of significant features that must be protected for future use. This includes land that has the potential to contain a significant amount of aggregate material. While a property may not be designated for aggregate extraction, it may still be identified for its potential for extraction.
The Plan will also identify floodplains. If your potential property is located within a floodplain, it is important to understand the policies that affect the property and the implications of possible flooding hazards.
2. Zoning By-law
The Zoning By-law, as you may already know, implements the policies of the Official Plan by setting out specific regulations for building and development. The municipality is divided into zones that are specific to the use that occurs on each property. Each zone has a set of lot regulations like yard setbacks, building heights and lot area and frontage requirements. Real Estate agents will often tell potential buyers what zone the property is located in and list the permitted uses within that zone. However, there is more to a zoning by-law than permitted uses and front yard setbacks.
The zoning by-law also contains a section of general provisions that apply to all zones. This section will include provisions such as regulations for parking, accessory buildings and structures, and existing undersized lots. These provisions are particularly important if you are looking at a house and would like to build a detached garage or shed. Or, if you are establishing a commercial use and need to know the required number of parking spaces.
The Zoning By-law should also identify natural hazards with a special zone, just as the Official Plan identifies natural hazards. Zone boundaries for natural hazards and areas do not follow property lines and may cover only small portions of a given property.
In addition to understanding what you can and cannot do on your potential property, it is also important to know the zones that surround your potential property. Are there any uses permitted on nearby properties that you may not want to be close to? Typically, a zone on a property reflects the official plan designation in which it is located. However, this is not always the case, and outdated zoning in certain areas remains.
If you’re looking for a new house or property, there is more to examine than the granite kitchen countertops or the potential waterfront access. Do some research into what is planned for your potential property and the properties that surround it by examining the important municipal land use planning documents – the official plan and the zoning by-law. Some things you cannot predict. However, investigating the relevant planning documents will provide you with the information you need to make an informed decision. That way, you can enjoy your property with peace of mind, and avoid being labelled a NIMBY, fighting to stop something that had always been inevitable.