Should I Use a Standard Zone or a Direct Control Zone?
Situate is a planning consulting firm specializing in rezoning, permit and subdivision coordination services for awesome infill projects. In our How To series we dissect the ins and outs of navigating the rezoning process.
Choosing the right zone for your redevelopment project can be a difficult decision, and there are a lot of factors to consider. Does the zone have all of the uses that you may need in the future? Will it have enough density to make the project feasible? Will the rezoning be successfully approved by City Council? These questions will inevitably lead you to another question: What type of zone should be used?
TYPES OF ZONES: A PRIMER
City of Edmonton Zoning Bylaw 12800 has two types of zones: standard zones and custom zones, also known as direct control provisions. The standard zones include residential zones (such as RF1, RF3, RF5, RA7, RA8, RA9) and commercial zones (such as CNC, CSC, CB1, CB2, CB3, CO), among others. Standard zones contain a list of permitted and discretionary uses and generic regulations that provide a bit of flexibility (within defined parameters) for future uses and building design. Standard zones are a bit like a recipe that you find in a cookbook—someone already created that recipe and tested it out, and if you follow it you should get decent results.
Custom zones in Edmonton are known as direct control provisions, and there are two types of them: DC1 zones and DC2 zones. DC1 zones are generally used to establish, preserve or enhance areas of unique historic character or environmental concern, and are much less common than DC2 zones. DC2 zones are custom-written, site-specific zones that are used to accommodate a unique mix of uses or development regulations that are not found in any of the standard zones. Each DC2 zone has its own unique number (e.g. DC2.876). The higher the number, the more recently the zone was created.
STANDARD OR CUSTOM ZONES: WHICH IS BETTER?
Standard zones are not necessarily better than custom zones or vice versa—a zone is simply a tool to help you get your project built. What’s important is understanding the tools and making an informed decision about which tool will work best for you.
That being said, it should be noted that standard zones are intended to work in the majority of situations, and direct control zones are intended to be used in circumstances where a standard zone can’t get the job done.
Read on to find out the key differences between standard zones and direct control zones.
STANDARD ZONES AND CUSTOM ZONES: A COMPARISON
The approval timeline for a direct control zone is longer than for a standard zone, because i) there are more steps in the process, and ii) a lot more work has to be done before you apply for the rezoning.
For instance, before you apply for a direct control zone you’re required to send letters to the surrounding neighbours to let them know about the impending rezoning application and to ask for their feedback. You will then need to explain to the City how you used the community’s feedback. In addition, you have to write and submit the regulations for your direct control zone when you apply. Direct control zones are required to have a site plan and elevation drawings included as part of the submission, so the building has to be designed before you apply.
You may also be required to present your building design to the Edmonton Design Committee during the rezoning process if your site is located in a central neighbourhood or within certain corridors,.
Rezoning to a direct control zone is more costly than rezoning to a standard zone for a number of reasons. The first of these reasons is the municipal fees required to process the application. The application fee for a rezoning to a standard zone like RA9, to build a tower on a 1,000 m2 site would cost between $3,362 and $4,818 depending on the existing zoning. The application fee for a DC2 zone to allow for the same size building on the same size site would be $17,480. The pre-application letters also cost $5 each, and can add up quickly.
Consulting fees for a direct control zone are likely to be higher than for a standard zone. The additional application requirements listed above (custom regulations, architectural drawings, and the Edmonton Design Committee presentation) are typically handled by planning consultants and architects.
The most substantial cost associated with DC2 rezonings usually comes in the form of community amenity contributions. City Policy C599 requires developers to build or pay for public benefits or amenities as part of direct control (DC2) rezoning applications. Policy C599 is triggered when the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is proposed to increase by more than 5% over what’s allowed in the current zone. For larger projects, the community amenity contribution can often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Direct control zones are less flexible than standard zones because they’re written to accommodate a development exactly as envisioned at the time of rezoning, and offer little to no wiggle room if those development plans should change. However, we all know that the only thing certain in life is change—market demand fluctuates, and the cost of materials can change drastically and with no warning, to name just a couple of examples.
Direct control zones are ill-equipped to deal with these changes because the regulations of the zone are custom-written for a specific building on a specific site. The site plan and building drawings are created for one specific building. At the development permit stage, the development officer is not allowed to grant any variances to the regulations of a direct control zone.
All this means that if development plans change, or the originally designed project is no longer feasible for any reason, you will need to go through the entire rezoning process again. This is unfortunately a common occurrence in Edmonton.
4. FUTURE ZONING CHANGES
The City makes regular amendments to the Zoning Bylaw to fix errors, make updates, and generally reflect development trends and best practices. Some of these changes have a significant impact, such as when the City removed minimum parking requirements. Many of the types of Zoning Bylaw regulations that get updated through these types of amendments have their own specific requirements written directly into direct control zones. This means that when the Zoning Bylaw regulations are updated, the corresponding regulations in the direct control zone don’t change.
The City is also in the process of creating an entirely new Zoning Bylaw. There will be significant changes to standard zones and general zoning regulations as a result. However, any direct control zone created before the new Zoning Bylaw comes into effect will stay the same and will not be updated.
WHEN IS A CUSTOM ZONE NECESSARY?
Up until now we’ve been alluding to how standard zones seem to make more sense than direct control zones. There are some very good reasons why a direct control zone may be necessary though. Read on to find out more.
1. IRREGULAR LOT SHAPE
Standard zones are meant to work for the vast majority of new developments, but because of that they work under the assumption that a lot always has a typical rectangular or rectilinear shape. However, this is not always the case. Irregular lot shapes can make it difficult to develop a standard rectangular building without a lot of variances. In order to avoid variances at the development permit stage, a direct control zone may make sense.
2. UNIQUE BUILDING DESIGN
A direct control zone may also be necessary for unique architectural designs that can’t be built under a standard zone. For higher density buildings, standard zones typically assume the building will be in the form of a tower with a podium. A different building shape will likely require a direct control zone to accommodate it.
3. LARGE BUILDINGS
A direct control zone may be the only option for large buildings of a greater intensity than the standard zones allow. Edmonton’s highest intensity, standard residential zone has a maximum height of 60 metres. Many new buildings in Oliver and Edmonton’s downtown core are taller than that, requiring direct control zoning.
4. MEDIUM SCALE OR MIXED USE DEVELOPMENT
The Zoning Bylaw’s standard zones also don’t have much to offer for mid-rise buildings between six and 20 storeys, or for mixed use developments. Edmonton’s residential zones have a gap between 6 and twenty storeys: the RA8 zone only allows buildings of up to six storeys, and the RA9 zone allows buidings of up to twenty storeys, and there’s nothing in between. This means that an eight or ten storey building would need to be developed under the RA9 zone, but, because the RA9 zone allows for so much extra height, the community and City of Edmonton Administration would be unlikely to support it. In this instance it might be better to go with a custom direct control zone.
The Zoning Bylaw also lacks a zone that is expressly intended for medium scale mixed use development. There are zones that allow for a limited mix of residential and commercial uses, but we don’t have a medium scale zone in which both commercial uses and residential uses are both permitted as a right.
ONE LAST THING: WHY ARE THERE SO MANY DC2 ZONES?
Edmonton has a lot of custom direct control DC2 zones: over 1,300 have been approved since the 1980s. For decades the standard zones didn’t work very well, so in order to build, well—almost anything—a direct control zone was pretty much required. Edmonton’s Zoning Bylaw dates from the 1960s and the standard zones really hadn’t been comprehensively updated to accommodate infill and urban redevelopment until the medium scale zones were overhauled on August 26, 2019.
Over the decades everyone got accustomed to (and very comfortable with) using direct control zones, since the standard zones didn’t work very well (especially on small and medium sized infill sites). Because direct control zones have a specific design and specific regulations for the site in question, Council, Administration and community members could provide input and negotiate the details of each development at the rezoning stage. This provided a strong sense of certainty (even though many projects would never actually get built), and explains why—as a City—we still have a tendency to fall back on direct control zones even when they’re not really necessary and a standard zone would work fine.
With the changes in 2019 to the Zoning Bylaw and the approval of City Plan, a shift is underway to make infill and urban redevelopment easier. The Zoning Bylaw Renewal project will accelerate the process of creating 15-minute districts where people can meet their daily needs locally. Part of this shift is using standard zones as effective tools to enable a more compact and sustainable city.
We hope this article helped you understand a bit more about the history of standard and custom zones, as well as the key things to consider when deciding which zoning tool is right for you.