How do you read a zoning code? Draw a site plan?

My Master's in planning was great preparation on the theory, economics, and policy side of cities but we were not instructed in much of the craft that planners use daily. To make things even more complicated, I studied in the UK which is unlike the Canadian or American systems so even something as simple as analyzing a Canadian zoning code is somewhat new to me.

For a while, I felt like a fraud. I was having difficulty parsing through zoning codes which is supposed to be old hat for someone with my background.

To my great relief, I've learned that basically no one learns this stuff in school. You learn on the job, by trial and error, or by observing professionals. Also to my relief, I realized that it's not just me! Many zoning codes make no sense!

I discovered it all while hanging out with John Anderson at a Small Developers Bootcamp and I wanted to pass on some of those findings.

Three things to note about zoning:

1. It’s not just you. Your city’s zoning code is probably contradictory and nonsensical at times. For example, we ended up discovering that you’d need to buy two lots to be able to build anything in a particular neighborhood because the minimum lot size for new developments was something like 60’ but the existing lots are only 40’ wide. 

To understand why a code seems so contradictory we have to understand its evolution, how a zoning code comes to be. It’s not a divine document full of great city-building wisdom so much as an annotated history of bad experiences. Very rarely does a code prescribe what it wants to see in the city. Usually, the code feels more like a string of “thou shalt nots” which reflect specific cases the city is trying to protect against, inspired by unpopular prior developments. The code is ostensibly used as a way to prevent overcrowding, or absentee landlords, or perceived parking mayhem, etc.

When the code fails to prevent a bad development (as is apt to happen in the face of human creativity), the only recourse is to add another arcane rule. This has the unfortunate effect of making good development more difficult and expensive as well. We must understand the code for what it is.

2. If your city is like mine, the zoning code is only available in digital format, often divided into several PDFs for download. In Fredericton, it costs $50 to get a paper version. If you're serious about getting to know your code, you're going to want a paper version in a binder. With dividers. There's a LOT of flipping back and forth required. Ask for yours at City Hall.

3. It can change. I'm still learning (in a practical sense) how exactly we achieve broad zoning changes, but the code is not set in stone. If what you want to build is not permitted according to the zoning you can ask for special permission. This is called a variance, and in my city it needs to be approved by the planning advisory committee (which considers an official recommendation of the city planning department as well as any comments from area residents). Minor zoning changes are left to the discretion of the planning advisory committee, but larger changes go to city council for a final approval. I imagine other cities are similar. 

How do you make sense of it?

Sometimes, that's sadly an unanswerable question, but John showed me a great trick to wrap your head around zoning. You draw out all the bits and pieces the code throws at you until you have a sketch of what you're allowed to build.

I've got about 4 pages like this full of notes from the zoning code with corresponding article numbers.

I've got about 4 pages like this full of notes from the zoning code with corresponding article numbers.

You may have to fish around a lot for the clues, but you'll get there eventually. First, figure out which "zone" your site falls into. Then, find all the design parameters that apply to it. They will exist in different sections and contain things like setbacks, lot coverage, parking requirements, specifics on corner lots, height limits, etc. This is for my current zone which is classified "TP4" or "Town Plat 4."

Here's a sample of John drawing these things out.

You'll notice he's got all sorts of neat tools. Which brings me to...

How do you make your drawings look nice?

How does John whip up something so beautiful, so fast?

Get this. People who draw and draft professionally have a whole different tool set. They have magical rulers that glide and stay parallel and triangular scales that calculate for you in one instant how to scale down a lot to the size of your paper. They use tracing paper and special pencils and fancy markers that layer really beautifully.

So I took a trip to my local art store. Of course the tools only take you so far. The rest is talent, practice, and technique. I plan on getting lots of practice in 2016. Here are a few more tips from John and a materials list if you want to start creating your own site plans. You can do it!

All photos and videos by Gracen Johnson.

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