From 2015 to 2017, UrbanToronto and its sister publication, SkyriseCities, ran an occasional series of articles under the heading Explainer. Each one took a concept from Urban Planning, Architecture, Construction, or other topics that often wind up in our publications, and presented an in depth look at it. It's time to revisit (and update where necessary) those articles for those new to UrbanToronto. While you may already know what some of these terms mean, others may be new to you. We will be (re)publishing Explainer on a weekly basis.

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Many UrbanToronto articles begin with a declaration that a developer has applied to the City for an Official Plan Amendment (OPA), and/or Zoning By-law Amendment (ZBA), and/or Site Plan Approval (SPA) for a site where they intend to redevelop. While OPA applications are less frequent than ZBA or SPA applications, OPA is the broadest framework overseeing what types of buildings the City wants to see in particular areas, so let's look at Official Plans this week.

Cities have a variety of broad objectives that they wish to achieve in areas like housing, transportation, land use, utilities, recreation, the environment, and culture. These objectives may be expressly outlined in a document called an Official Plan, sometimes known as a Comprehensive Plan, which details a vision for the future growth of the city over a long-term time horizon. 

Transportation is often a key component of Official Plans, image by Marcus Mitanis

The Official Plan contains a number of policies to help guide urban development. For example, Toronto's Official Plan includes policies related to where people live, where they work, where they shop, where they play, and how they get from one of these areas to another, covering transportation in broad terms. Policies also drill down to such things as heritage designation of buildings and affordable housing. Generally, new development applications must conform to the policies contained within the Official Plan.

Cover page of Toronto's Official Plan, image via City of Toronto

Below the level of the Official Plan are Zoning By-laws. The OP is implemented through their more detailed provisions which more narrowly describe the permitted use, height, and density on each property in the city. Some buildings that were built in a area prior to zoning or the Official Plan coming into effect are considered non-conforming uses.

Over time, objectives in an Official Plan may be met, or new priorities for the city may be identified. To account for that, the plan is reviewed and updated periodically to ensure continued relevance as the city develops. Between updates, however, it occurs not infrequently in Toronto, for example, that a developer may have an idea for a site where the proposal would not only require zoning by-law amendments, but the proposal may be a big enough change for the site that it would require an Official Plan Amendment application to be made as well. (Cities are required by provincial law to consider all applications made to them, and weigh the proposals against the zoning by-laws, the official plans, and other planning precedents in the area.)

An example of a proposal requiring an Official Plan amendment would be where a developer would like to create a mixed-use development that includes residential uses on a site the is currently restricted in the Official Plan to employment uses only. As that is a larger policy decision for a City to tackle, the City is allowed more time by provincial law to consider it and render a decision.

If the City does not render a decision within a prescribed time, or if the proponent is not happy with the outcome, the proponent is then able to appeal the decision or the lack of a decision to the Ontario Land Tribunal (or OLT, previously known as the Ontario Municipal Board or OMB and the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal or LPAT). For Zoning By-law Amendment applications, a proponent may appeal to the OLT if a decision has not been rendered within 90 days of filing an application. For Official Plan Amendment applications, a proponent may appeal to the OLT if a decision has not been rendered within 120 days of filing an application.

It is rare for the City of Toronto to have made a decision within those timeframes; decisions often take half a year to a couple of years to be made, depending upon how complicated the proposal is. Many developers are fine with waiting for the City to come to a decision, assuming the review of and tweaks to their application are proceeding in a way where an agreeable outcome is foreseen. This process is concluded when a finalized proposal is presented to City Council, with any amendments to the Official Plan and Zoning By-laws being approved in a vote.

If the proponent does not foresee the City approving their proposal, however, the proponent may appeal to the OLT if they believe that they have a good chance of having their proposal approved there.

We will talk more about how cases are handled at the OLT in a future Explainer, and we will look further into the planning framework of cities in general in future Explainer articles. Do you have other planning terms that you would like to see featured on Explainer? Share your comments and questions in the comments section below!

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