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PERMITS, Part 2: Planning and Development

Updated: Dec 4, 2021

The Planning Department reviews the proposed use, size, and exterior aesthetic of a proposed project for compliance with the zoning bylaw, and it issues Development Permits to approved projects.

This is the second article in a short series describing the main parts of the permitting process for a construction project. For an overview of the players, please read my previous article PERMITS, Part 1: The Players.


“The zoning bylaw is a set of rules describing the buildings permitted to be built in each part of the municipality.”

Where it's a separate body, the Planning Department may go by any one of several names such as Planning, Planning & Development, Development, Planning & Community Development, or some similar delicious combination. The Planning Department's job is to create and enforce zoning regulations, to process applications for rezoning and zoning variances, to manage advisory design panels, and to issue development permits. Sounds great, but what does all this mean? The Planning department is responsible for reviewing the use, size, and exterior aesthetic of proposed buildings -- also referred to as USE, FORM, and CHARACTER. To do this, the department creates and occasionally revises a set of rules describing the buildings that are permitted to be built in each part of the municipality -- the zoning bylaw. The zoning bylaw's purpose is to ensure that new construction matches the established goals for a given location.

"Each zone type lists the limitations on the use, the size, and to varying degrees the aesthetic of a building's exterior."

Nearly every municipality has multiple, distinct neighbourhoods. For example, there may be a 'downtown', several shopping areas, and numerous residential neighbourhoods. Correspondingly, zone types -- and their associated lettered reference codes -- are created and assigned to the properties. For example, a 'Downtown District (DD)' zone type might exist and apply to all the properties in the downtown area. A 'Residential (RS)' zone type might have been created and been assigned to the properties in the residential zones. You can usually find a municipality's zoning map online. Each zone type lists the limitations on the use, the size, and to some extent the aesthetic of a building's exterior -- again, referred to as use, form, and character.

The City of Vancouver has a terrific primer video on zoning HERE.


The intended use of a building is what you might guess: what the building will be used for. The building may be a hospital, an apartment building, a liquor store, or a museum. Each zone type specifies permitted uses. For example, the RS (residential single-family) zone type may explicitly permit a single-family house, a library, a community centre, or a school; it will generally not permit a jail, an office skyscraper, or a factory.


The form of a building always denotes the size and to sometimes a guide to the shape. I'll use the example of a 2-storey house (each floor 1,200 sq.ft) on a 33'x120' (3,960 sq.ft. area) lot in a RS-1 zone to illustrate. The size limitations include the following:

  • minimum and maximum widths and depths of the property itself (e.g. a lot in this zone may not be narrower than 24')

  • maximum building height (stated either as a dimension such as 31'-2" or as the number of floors such as 2-1/2 storeys)

  • minimum distances that the building must be built away from (set back from) different property lines stated either as dimensions, percentages, or calculations

  • e.g. side yard setback = 4'

  • e.g. front yard setback = 20% of the property depth

  • e.g. rear yard setback =

  • the property width divided by 4, then subtract 5, then divide by 100,

  • then multiply by the width of the property

  • maximum portion of the property that the building can occupy (e.g. maximum 35% site coverage of 33'x120' = a maximum building footprint of 1,386 sq.ft.)

  • maximum ratio of the total area of all floors to area of the property (e.g. 0.6) Our example house has a total floor area of 2,400 sq.ft., and the floor area ratio is 2,400 ÷ 3,960 = approximately 0.6 : 1 (stated just as 0.6).

  • sometimes extra setbacks required for upper portions of the building -- this is what can affect the shape of the building such as the newer multiple-residential buildings along Vancouver's Cambie corridor or the early 20th-century skyscrapers of Manhattan

Why all these requirements? These aspects of buildings affect our behaviour, our state of mind, and the functionality of places. Let's take setbacks for example. A storefront is usually right up against a sidewalk so that people walking down the sidewalk or parking on the curb can walk right into the store. Conversely, if a house was up against the sidewalk, passersby would be looking right into your living room or bedroom as they walk by. As another example, maximum building heights combined with setbacks also help ensure that the spaces between the buildings receive enough sunlight to feel pleasant and don't feel like unsafe alleyways. Furthermore, side yard setbacks between buildings also help prevent the spread of fire from one building to the next and provide access for firefighters to all parts of a building.


Whereas the requirements for the form of a building are prescriptive (i.e. Do exactly THIS, do exactly THAT), the Planning Department's review evaluates as objectively as possible also the qualities that cannot be measured. Staff must assess a building's aesthetic as it relates to adjacent spaces and places, and the goal is usually to maintain the look and feel of each neighbourhood as well as the role that each neighbourhood plays in the makeup of the town or city. Is this a historic / heritage neighbourhood or a modern one? Should the styling of the buildings here be lively or modest? Do the buildings look cozy and inviting or grand and imposing? Such consideration helps distinguish a modern, upbeat retail area from a serene, historic residential area.

Site Design

The zoning bylaw also lays out requirements for hard and soft landscaping, for vehicle and bicycle parking, and occasionally for other considerations such as loading areas or showers and change rooms for bicycle commuters. Vehicle parking requirements include how many parking stalls must be provided, what size the parking stalls and the drive aisles must be, and where the parking may be located.

Landscaping requirements apply to anything that isn't the building itself: grass, trees, bushes, fountains, asphalt, concrete, and pavers. Usually, the Planning Department evaluates a proposal to ensure that enough natural landscaping remains both to create a pleasant space and to allow rainwater to soak into the ground and replenish the natural groundwater.

Development Permit

Any work that creates a new building or affects the exterior of an existing building requires a Development Permit. The Development Permit (nicknamed the DP) is the municipality's confirmation that the proposal submitted identifies the use, form, and character of the project and that they along with the site design satisfy the corresponding requirements of the zoning bylaw. The DP is an approval of the project's design in concept; the municipality will then accept for its review a Building Permit application that provides more information on the project.

If you haven't met our friends Johann and Eva, you can get up to speed in my articles EVA AND JOHANN: MEET OUR HEROES and PERMITS, Part 1: The Players.


Johann makes a phone call to the kind folks at the Development and Building Services Enquiry Centre who confirm what the inspector said -- that he will require permits -- and they direct him to the location on the city website where he can download the zoning requirements for his property and the requirements for the application. Overwhelmed by the mass of text in the zoning bylaw, Johann enlists the aid of a fellow teacher and discovers that his deck extends about 18" past the rear yard setback. A follow-up call to the city advises Johann that in spite of the deck being complete, he has three options:

  1. fix the deck to be compliant,

  2. remove the deck, or

  3. face fines and the likelihood of the deck being demolished by the City with a bill to follow

Johann soon enough discovers through reading the City's website pages on the Development Permit that obtaining the DP (Development Permit) for his deck and tool shed will not be as much of a headache as he first thought. He is not terribly happy about having to pay a development fee, and hiring a land surveyor (to prepare a legal survey of his property) and an engineer (to prepare structural drawings) adds more expense. Johann hires a drafting service to prepare a basic site plan drawing, floor plans, and architectural elevations for his submission showing the deck shortened to fit within the setback line. With the drawings ready and several other forms filled out, Johann makes a request for a meeting with a City Planner. An appointment is made for the following week, and Johann makes his application. The Planner glances over the submission and estimates that the review process should not take long; as there is minimal impact to neighbours, and few City departments will require input.

Over the next few weeks, Johann occasionally enjoys a beer out on the "illegal" deck wondering what the mysterious Planning department's evaluation will yield. Within a few weeks, though, Johann receives a notification that his drawings require additional information. He then contacts the drafting company and asks why their drawings didn't already have everything the City asked for, but they admit that they generally don't prepare development permit drawings. Nonetheless, Johann pays the drafters for adding the required information to their drawings and to prepare the additional information and diagrams listed by the Planner.

With summer in full swing and many municipal staff on vacation, a month goes by without a word from the City. Johann phones in and asks for an update but is told that the revised application is still in the queue for review. A month and a half after Johann's resubmission, the summer is nearly over when Johann receives notification that his development permit is approved.

Feeling a mix of frustration, relief, and vindication, Johann starts laying out the new foundations for the relocated supports and prepared to cut in the awkward new framing. The evenings are cooler now, and with school starting up again, Johann has precious little time before the cold rains of November come.


Since Eva will be modifying the exterior of her home, it is no surprise to us that she requires a Development Permit.  A co-worker of hers recommends a drafting company -- Blue-It -- and she approaches them to help her produce some drawings.  The drafters tell her that they can prepare drawings, but they never deal with any of the other parts of a Development Permits.  They say she'll probably need to hire an architect to create the rest of the submission.  Eva's not sure she wants to spend what is likely to be a large amount of money on an architect, so she begins doing some research herself.  A quick online search points her to a page explaining the basic process, and the process begins with discussion with the Planning and Development staff. 

Preparing for a meeting with the city, Eva finds Coquitlam's zoning map online and sees that her property is in a RS-1 zone. The webpage also directs her to Coquitlam's Zoning Bylaw, so she looks it up and reads the requirements for her zone type. The specification for building area is stated as a percentage of the lot area, but the rest of the parameters determining building size are a confusing combination of angled planes, average grades, and building face areas. Further online research yields several forms for her to fill out and a host of drawings, diagrams, and reports to prepare.

Undeterred, Eva hires a land surveyor to prepare the required legal survey of her property. She then spends a few weeks sketching as best she could the building expansion she had in mind. Eva knows very little about architectural plans, and looking over her drawings, she feels as though she's produced only a mess of awkward scrawls. Feeling a little defeated, she decides that she should get the advice of an architect.

Eva finds through the Architectural Institute of BC an architect, Pete Tang, who practices in residential construction.  Eva asks how much would it cost for half an hour of his time, but Pete assures her that sitting down to discuss her project and needs is no charge; he's more than willing to see what she has in mind and to recommend the next steps. When they meet, Eva shares her vision with Pete and sheepishly shows him her sketches. Pete kindly gives Eva an overview of the design process and explains that although she as the owner hires all the required consultants, Pete as the architect would coordinate their efforts and prepare all the required Development Permit documentation.

Pete sends a fee proposal to Eva to prepare the Development Permit package.  Eva feels that she can manage the cost and hires Pete as the project architect. Over the next few months, Pete helps flesh out Eva's ideas into a refined and resolved design. The process turns Eva's amateur doodles into proper architectural drawings, and Pete coordinates with the landscape architect whom Eva has hired to prepare an arborist report and landscape plan.  Pete hands off the drawings and diagrams, and Eva books an appointment with the Planning and Development Department to review her submission.

By the end of a fairly painless meeting with the City, Eva's application is accepted for processing, and she is told that the review process may take as many as a few months. Ten weeks later, Eva receives an email informing her that the Development Permit for her project has been approved.

In my next article, PERMITS Part 3: Building Permit, I'll discuss what happens after a Development Permit is approved, when a project moves on to the Building Permit stage.


The information above is correct to the best of my understanding, hopefully eliminates some mystery, reduces confusion, and piques your interest. However, the information is provided as mainly entertainment and should not be relied upon as legal reference or advice. Please consult with the authorities, registered professionals, and legislation in your area, as I will not be liable for any differences you may encounter.

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