THUNDER BAY – City council has tentatively passed a major overhaul of Thunder Bay’s zoning rules that's intended to drive urban infill, allowing more backyard homes and cutting parking requirements, among other changes.
At a public meeting Tuesday, the changes in the proposed new zoning bylaw were largely – though not universally – welcomed by local residents and groups.
Most said the changes, which still require final approval on April 4, will encourage more vibrant, walkable, and sustainable neighbourhoods.
Mayor Bill Mauro, who has called the new bylaw a key priority for the current council, said the new rules will have very real impacts.
“There are many families who don't want to put an in-law in a long-term care home,” he said. “They will see the advantage of a backyard home… as a place to care for loved ones, to have them close."
"It also provides a secondary income for a lot of people… there are advantages to this [aside from] the intensification.”
Some citizens and councillors, however, worried the more permissive rules would change the character of single-family neighbourhoods and worsen landlord-tenant issues.
The new bylaw collapses the current four residential zones into one “urban low rise zone,” with standardized rules allowing between one and three additional units per lot in all urban areas, including through additions and smaller “backyard homes.”
Lots with 10 metres of frontage and an area of 300 square metres will be permitted up to two units; lots with 15 metres frontage and 450 square metres of area up to three units; and lots with 20 metres of frontage and 600 square metres of area up to four units, a number currently allowed only on corner lots.
The new bylaw also drops the number of parking spaces required per unit from 1.5 to one. That generated “widespread concerns” from the public over parking availability and snow removal, staff noted, but said that could be addressed through enforcement and other measures.
The moves respond in part to new provincial guidance requiring cities offer more options for additional units, and will help the city reach a target of generating 20 per cent of new residential units through urban infill, rather than new subdivisions.
Staff say that will deliver a range of benefits from more affordable housing to cheaper delivery of city services and lower carbon emissions.
Environmental non-profit EcoSuperior is “both thrilled and relieved” with the new bylaw’s “life-affirming” policies, said executive director Sue Hamel.
“Climate scientists and urban planners alike increasingly agree that one of the most impactful ways to slash greenhouse gas emissions is to make cities denser,” she said.
She also called ending exclusionary zoning, which allows only single-family homes in some areas, an important social justice step.
“Single-family zoning is known to be a contributor to the housing affordability crisis [and] a critical social justice issue," she said. "It’s well-documented that the roots of single-family zoning are both racist and classist, and a growing body of evidence suggests the practice has led to higher levels of residential segregation.”
Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce president Charla Robinson expressed excitement over the new bylaw, which incorporated several changes suggested by the chamber, including more flexible definitions for business zones that eliminate the hierarchy of retail and office uses.
She also welcomed the end of exclusionary zoning, saying increased density will be good for local businesses.
However, she urged the city to go further and lift more restrictions on neighbourhood businesses outside of main commercial districts.
“While our central business districts have become more flexible and welcoming to business with these zoning reforms, many of Thunder Bay’s residents live in business deserts,” she said. “There's nowhere in a walkable distance for them to buy a cup of coffee, pick up a bag of milk, buy a new dress, or get a haircut.”
She asked council to lift limits on the number of employees businesses in mixed-use zones are allowed to have, and suggested creating expedited planning applications for neighbourhood businesses.
Richard Togman, CEO of Rent Panda, said the new bylaw will benefit seniors and those living on low incomes and help wean the community off a dependency on cars, but argued the city could be bolder and encourage more infill by dropping the frontage requirements.
“As long as the building meets fire code, building code, and isn’t substantially changing the footprint... the amount of frontage someone has shouldn’t really affect how many units they can put in a building,” he said. “I see this as a potential bias against smaller and more affordable rental units that our low-income residents rely on.”
John Hodson and David Cavner, who said they represent a McKellar Ward residents' association, told councillors they were deeply worried about the impact of zoning changes in their area, saying poor enforcement of existing standards left it plagued with issues of noise, criminal activity, and abuse by some landlords.
“The current culture of bylaw and code enforcement seems to be powerless or take an inordinate amount of time to address problems,” he said. “Now you ask us to consider a bylaw change… that will allow new residential units and backyard homes.”
“We say, not in our ward – not under present conditions… Not in a climate where vulnerable populations living in substandard residential accommodations are too afraid to complain to their landlords for fear of eviction; Not when the ward is seeing an influx of international post-secondary students unaware of their rights and being abused by unscrupulous landlords; not on streets already clogged by parked cars.”
Hodson acknowledged the city is expanding its enforcement division, but expressed skepticism that would be enough.
Resident Peter Hryniuk said the new bylaw won't protect neighbours from the impacts of additional units, arguing owners should have to submit drainage and shading plans.
It’s a step the city called unnecessary, saying such reports are already required when a main building is constructed, and that “some shadowing can be expected in any urban environment.”
Coun. Mark Bentz called the concerns legitimate, asking if staff could present more conservative options on additional units before the final vote on April 4.
“The worst case scenario to me would be that everybody develops to four [units] around a person that is maybe not wanting that sort of environment,” he said. “I know you’re going to say it’s not likely to happen, but is there anything we can do to prevent it?”
The city could be more restrictive in its approach, said manager of planning services Leslie McEachern, but she noted a majority of those who submitted feedback supported the proposed changes.
Coun. Albert Aiello was the only other councillor to suggest he had serious concerns over additional units.
“There’s a lot of good things in here,” he said. “My concern is, where’s the balance... in ensuring the people that want a single-family dwelling with the white picket fence [can still get it]?”
Coun. Andrew Foulds said the bylaw won’t please everyone, but strikes the right balance while reining in urban sprawl and reducing GHG emissions.
“Philosophically, past councils had a different view on the way the city should develop," he said. "Because of [our] huge geographic footprint, it’s a terribly inefficient way to deliver municipal services.”
“If we’re serious about continuing to deliver services that citizens demand in an affordable and efficient way, and managing the tax levy, this is a policy decision we have to make.”
Council unanimously accepted staff recommendations to adopt the new zoning bylaw and amend the Official Plan on Tuesday. The decision still needs to be confirmed at a meeting on April 4. Council can also make future amendments.
Residents can learn more at the city’s Get Involved website.