Accidental Activist

Garage Conversion Diversion

Why does it always feel as if City Hall is in the business of doing nothing more than fining us, punishing us, and trying to squeeze us for every drop?

By Ben Bull
Published June 02, 2010

I've been thinking about a garage conversion. We're a family of six - four kids, two growed ups - all huddled together in a little downtown Toronto row house.

Our current TV room is six foot by ten, good for only three seasons and, given that our van is on its last legs and there's lots of street parking available, well - a garage conversion seems like a logical plan.

We're thinking: family room. Simple enough - right? Of course, I'll need a permit, I figured. You always do. These days it's as if the City always seems to want to stick their noses into your business, what with new garbage bins, fees, rules, a zillion bylaws for this and that, you pretty much assume that as soon as you see your kids draw hop-scotch on the sidewalk you better holler at them to stop and make a quick call to your Councillor.

But that's OK. I'll fill out a few forms, I thought, pay a small fee and keep a few bureaucrats in business. No problemo.

I scoured the City's website. Building extensions, loft conversions, parking permits, new constructions, hmm... garage conversions anybody?

Nada.

So off I trudged to City Hall. As I strolled past the signs along the way:

'No parking from 2-7'

'Permit required!'

'No waiting'

'No left turn between 5-7'

...I wondered, why exactly, if, in fact, I needed a permit.

All I was doing was hanging a bit of drywall and putting some laminate on the floor. I might put a closet in too, but surely that's OK, right? As my old Dad used to say: 'What could possibly go wrong?'

"I'm converting my garage," I announced to the building permit guy, as soon as my number was called. It was the same guy who'd been squinting at me from behind his desk as I'd sat whistling and chatting to people as they wandered by.

Why was he eying me like this? I'd wondered as I tried to avoid his gaze. Was I too cheerful? Were my Bermuda shorts and Honest Ed sandals not 'buildery' enough for his office?

Sure, I looked a little out of place amongst the plaster-splattered hard hatties with their kite-sized surveys blanketing their laps. But I was only here for a garage conversion - how legit did I have to look?

"Converting it to what?" replied Stink Eye, his sneer now chiseling its way up his face, his mouth hanging open in what seemed to me to be the very visual definition of the word gormless.

"A Family Room," I replied, pushing my hastily sketched almost-to-scale pencil and crayon renovation plans across the counter.

He fingered the drawings like a damp urine bottle, pulling his head back, as if their very appearance gave off a bad smell.

"What's this?"

He emphasized the word 'this'. Not in a good way.

"The floor plan."

"Huh?"

He sniffed, wafted his hand in front of his nose and waved over to his buddy. "Hey Mitch!"

"Hey."

The project particulars were duly reiterated, the plans gingerly fingered once again.

"This won't do," said Mitch, tutting and shaking his head.

"You'll need to fill out more forms."

"OK," I replied, anticipating a kerfuffle of some kind (really, at City Hall - it's a given isn't it?), "Just tell me what I have to do."

So they did.

"Fill out a Project Review Request form," they began.

"Huh?"

"Draw up full floor plans for every level."

"Huh-uh?"

"Obtain a survey or get an architect to draw a site plan showing the set back, property lines and gradient of the renovated area..."

"Huh-uh-huh?"

"And then..."

"And then...? And then what?"

I lifted my hands up and stared at my notes: One half page of barely legible smudged shorthand.

"And then you'll need to apply for a variance."

"What!!"

Mitch and Stink Eye cheerily explained how the City didn't want 20 people living in every house in Toronto which is why they had bylaws around usable living space in our homes.

"Why don't you want 20 people living in one house?" I asked, thinking that Toronto's problem was surely one of a lack of density, not abundance of it.

"It's a bylaw."

"Oh."

"And there's more," they continued.

"More?"

"Yes. It may require a zoning change in which case it will have to go to Committee for approval."

"!!!!" ...Splat!

I picked myself up off the floor.

"So what do I do after the variance is approved?" I rasped, stuffing the forms into my envelope and staring at a blotch on the wall.

"You submit an application to the Committee of Adjustments."

"!!!!"

Splat again.

After picking myself up one more time I trudged off to the Committee of Adjustments counter. As I wandered over I thought back to a Two Ronnies, BBC comedy sketch from the '70s.

Ronnie Corbett is trying to buy a new stereo. "Do you want Woofers?" asks the pseudo-technical-less-than-helpful salesman.

"Woofers?"

"Yeah, you do. And you'll need a dingle dangle."

"A dingle what?"

"I'll give you two. And don't forget your tweakers."

"Tweakers!?"

"Half a dozen do ya?"

By the time the poor guy sloped out of the shop he had shopping cart full of bids and bods and no clue how to put them together.

The permit forms and instructions were now bulging out the top of my envelope - what else could I possibly need to do?

I stood in line and eavesdropped as a contrite looking Bay Street Bod nervously fiddled with his Blackberry.

"Erm, I have a, er, hypothetical question," he began, eying the grumpy looking Desk Clerk warily.

"Yes," replied Grumpy.

"Suppose, er, a friend of mine had been fined due to a, er...permit violation."

"Uh-Huh."

"Now...how might he appeal the fine?"

The grumpy clerk looked to the skies and scribbled something down on his pad.

"Is it you?" he snapped, pointing his pen into the man's face.

"No! No!" replied Bay Street Boy too quickly for comfort, "I'm just, er, doing some research."

After the suit scurried away I carefully laid out my predicament.

"What forms do you need me to complete?" I inquired.

As it transpired the Grumpy desk clerk was not so grumpy after all. He patiently outlined the four step COA application process that I'd need to go through, paying particular attention to the $747 fee I would need to incur, as well as the various site plan specifics I would need to re-submit.

"It's a long process," he concurred, as my head sank to the counter.

After pleading poverty, disease and every type of discrimination I could invent - 'doesn't this city want to help families?' I pleaded - the Not-So-Grumpy Desk Clerk placed his palms gently on the counter and replied, "No, not always."

Realizing that this project was no longer a go and that there was no one else in the line up, I asked the Clerk for his honest thoughts on the process.

Why was it necessary? Why did it always feel as if City Hall were in the business of doing nothing more than fining us, punishing us, and trying to squeeze us for every drop?

The Clerk sighed and told me there were two kinds of City workers: "Those who work for the public," he said, "And those who work for the city."

"Which one are you?"

"I work for the public," he stressed, "and yes, this process is stupid."

The Clerk then suggested that I might quietly convert the garage 'with the door closed,' and, if none of the neighbours complained, then, "What have you got to lose?"

It was the first good advice I'd received all day.

As I walked home past all the, 'No' signs - 'No stopping!', 'No idling!', 'No loading!' - I wondered why our bureaucracy always seems to get in our way. Isn't our government supposed to help people?

I turned onto my street and noted all the pokey little houses and their urban occupants: singles, newlyweds, nuclear 2.2-kid families...

Maybe it's time we moved to the suburbs.

I opened up my door and placed the envelope full of forms on the dining room table.

I headed down to the garage. The door was open.

I gently rolled it shut, and quietly got to work.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

49 Comments

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 02, 2010 at 10:41:38

Ya know, most people on this planet would be very happy to have a building as large and sturdy as the average Canadian garage. If you're willing to live without your car (or at least leave it outdoors), you're then left with an amazing set of possibilities - workshop, studio, family room, rental space, storefront, greenhouse, brewery etc... if you were allowed to do it. My advice would be the same as his - just build it. If they come after you, play dumb.

Legal systems such as this one need to realise that they have a responsibility to the public - much more than we have any responsibility to them. It is their job to provide rules, codes and by-laws which make sense, not our job to spend countless dollars or hours trying to translate legalese pig-latin which seems to serve no real purpose other than providing jobs for priviliged and highly paid professionals reading it to us.

Zoning bylaws are the legal equivalent of maps coloured by 6th grade geography students. And about as useful. For decades, both theory and evidence have pointed to the simple fact that a diversity of uses is best for urban spaces - homes, shops, workplaces etc. So what, exactly, is the point of arbitrarily limiting urban spaces to only one use?

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted June 02, 2010 at 14:00:03

Isn't our government supposed to help people?

There's my belly laugh for the day... I needed that!

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By JonC (registered) | Posted June 02, 2010 at 17:37:50

As much as bylaws may be flawed, Unindustrials suggestion that they are useless is even worse and that he received nothing but positive votes for such a poorly thought out idea is a sad commentary.

While converting a garage to a living room would have likely have no to no substantial impact on neighbours in most cases, would you care to have a tannery, or slaughterhouse in the garage nextdoor, or a chemical manufacturer. Perhaps an excessively noisy industrial use or medical waste storage out back. Maybe the conversion requires large trucks to manuveur down your previously residential street for deliveries.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted June 02, 2010 at 18:11:11

The thing to remember about all these by-laws isn't that they're trying to protect you, they're trying to protect the person who buys the house from you.

Having experienced some interesting home repairs, I'm glad they exist for any significant modifications.

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By michaelcumming (registered) - website | Posted June 02, 2010 at 18:42:21

As ridiculous and bureaucratic the process may seem, there is some reason for it all.

I too have spent time at the building permit desk at Toronto City Hall. If can feel like a Kafkaesque nightmare - especially if you are unfamiliar with the process.

In many developing countries you can in fact build whatever you like - wherever you like. And many people do. This results in people forgetting to put reinforcing steel in their concrete (or even cement powder) and builders constructing towers that crush their inhabitants in the event of earthquakes or hurricanes.

The fact that Chile did fairly well and Haiti did poorly after their earthquakes was the direct result of their building regulations.

If a society wants buildings that don't maim and kill then they need good building regulations.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 02, 2010 at 21:17:40

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with having building safety codes (though there's clearly lots wrong with ours) or restrictions on toxic industries - whether or not they're in populated areas.

However, zoning laws are not building safety codes or limits on industrial toxins. They're neighbourhood design codes which limit what basic uses are allowed, irrespective of the actual details. Both slaughtering animals and tanning leathers can be done quite safely in your back yard or garage - in fact, usually much more safely than one would find in big industry, since much cleaner methods such as vegetable-tanning are much more suited to that scale than large industrial chrome-tanning processes. And as for added residential space being bad, what exactly about it is so threatening? That it might, at little to no public effort or cost add significant amounts of density to neighbourhoods without any significant new building? Or that they allow individual families and homeowners to gain rental income, rather than property management corporations or absentee slumlords from Toronto?

And as someone who rents housing in Hamilton, I can attest to the piss-poor construction work in many area homes. But Zoning laws aren't doing anything about that, and having been involved in a number of absolutely stupid rental disputes (apparantly providing functioning toilets and plumbing within a unit is NOT a legal requirement of landlords...), it's clear that our legal apparatus is amazingly unsuited to these situations. If we're not willing to inspect work done, or punish people for doing it badly (especially people who then sell or rent the housing to others), then why bother checking plans at all?

And I'm far from the only one who thinks zoning laws are a bad idea. Here's a paper from UBC which references Jane Jacobs and her feelings on the issue... "Poorly thought out and sad commentary"? Hardly. Try a 10 second google search next time, that's all this took ("jane jacobs zoning laws", first result)

http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/law/lwsch/j...

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By JonC (registered) | Posted June 03, 2010 at 07:45:57

For starters, you misquoted me. It was you commentary that was poorly thought out and the upvoting for it that was the sad commentary, which would be evident had I been quoted properly.

I hate to break it to you, but Jane Jacobs never, to my knowledge, directly criticizes the concept of having zoning laws. You've pointed to a student paper at Boston College that incidentally doesn't disagree with my commentary at all, which again is that your extreme view of labeling bylaws as useless or a "bad idea" is poorly thought out. Furthermore, conflating zoning bylaws with the landlord and tenant act isn't useful in supporting your position. As an aside, while including animal slaughtering was a cheap emotional ploy (though totally valid) on my behalf, specifically supporting the evisceration of caracasses is never an opinion winner.

To clarify, I'm very pro-mixed neighbourhoods but bylaws are useful. Hell, the article you reference is pro-reformation of zoning, not pro-abolishing it. Also, while they aren't building safety codes, zoning bylaws do help enforce them. And while I would guess that Ben probably would have been approved (as there was no exterior modification to the home and no change to use), the cost is prohibative and it would have taken a really long time, and those are both valid issues that should be addressed by all municipalities. I feel his pain, I've been humming and hawing over converting my basement to a rental unit for years, but it hasn't seemed worth the hassle yet.

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By frank (registered) | Posted June 03, 2010 at 08:17:10

Children, put down the squirt guns! Notice Ben's not making another rental unit, it's a family room...i.e. rec room or play area or tv room! There should be no variances required.

I've done both types of renovations... the kind with a building permit and the kind without. Nearly every CITY inspector will tell you that if your project is small, start the work and if you're slapped with a stop work order, then make the required submissions. Drawing up plans and getting surveys to build something like a deck or complete a garage conversion is a waste of money especially since as you're building it you'll probably change your mind (or your wife will change it for you) requiring you to have your drawings modified and reapproved. Property setbacks and all that fun stuff is something you would require an architect to decipher and it's expensive to have someone complete a survey for you.

In short, the city guy was right: close the door, go about your work quietly.

Previous commenter said something about shoddy work and protecting the person who buys the house...here are some things to consider: even WITH a permit the chances that a person who actually KNOWS what they're doing checking your work are minimal, you should hire a home inspector and he should be able to identify shoddy workmanship (keyword:should) and it's "buyer beware", not the other way around not to mention that there are a lot of contractors who do shoddy work with/without a permit.

Bottom line is, it's your house and barring any problems you may cause your neighbor, you should be able to do what you like with it. Gummerment should protect you from other ppl not protect you from you. That's how we become a nanny state with neverending legislation for the most mundane things...that's how government becomes caught up making red tape as opposed to cutting it.

Comment edited by frank on 2010-06-03 07:18:46

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 03, 2010 at 08:54:27

do your thing Ben. If you need more family space instead of car space, good for you. Permits and inspections are in place to ensure safe electrical work is done and to prevent slaughterhouses from opening in garages (seriously, we're using examples like this now?). But any city worker will tell you, for something minor, just go ahead and do it without ticking off all the neighbours.

The safety guidelines and inspections aren't the problem. It's the multi-year, multi-permit, red-taped garbage system that stinks.
Just be careful with your electrical. LOL

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By JonC (registered) | Posted June 03, 2010 at 09:50:30

As I admit it`s an extreme example, but plausible with removal of all zoning bylaws.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 03, 2010 at 09:55:10

Jane Jacobs never, to my knowledge, directly criticizes the concept of having zoning laws.

Jacobs was highly critical of zoning laws, since they address the problem of how different uses can coexist by simply banning the coexistence of different uses, in rather the manner that frustrated parents sometimes stop their kids from fighting by sending them to their rooms.

The legacy of zoning laws is a city in which every use is separated from every other use, coherent mixed neighbourhoods can't exist and you need a car to drive from your residential zone to any other kind of destination.

But rather than merely throwing out the baby with the bath water, she advocated replacing zoning-based codes with performance-based codes. Performance-based codes address the problem of how different uses can coexist not by banishing whole swaths of uses but by establishing standards for what kinds of side effects - or performances - are acceptable and then allowing any use that does not violate those standards.

Here's a quote from her last book, Dark Age Ahead:

Zoning rules and tools neglect performances that outrage people. What are actually needed are prohibitions of destructive performances. To attend hearings on zoning and planning conflicts is to learn that feared changes are not actually about land uses, densities, and ground coverage but rather about dreaded side effects. The fears fall chiefly in the following categories:

  1. Noise from mechanical sources
  2. Bad smells and other forms of air pollution; also water pollution and toxic pollution of soil
  3. Heavy automotive through-traffic and heavy local truck traffic
  4. Destruction of parks, loved buildings, views, woodlands, and access to sun and sky
  5. Blighting signs and illumination
  6. Transgressions against harmonious street scales

Any enforceable code depends upon specific standards; an effective performance code must, too. ... A chief advantage of performance codes ... will be the incentive they offer to solve practical problems that traditional zoning tried to "solve" merely by banishing offenders to poor or politically disregarded parts of town or, recently, to politically feeble parts of the globe.

Jacobs argues that the goal of a performance code "should be to combine the greatest degree of flexibility and adaptability possible with the most germane and direct protections needed in the close-up view".

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2010-06-03 08:55:33

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By Jarod (registered) | Posted June 03, 2010 at 12:09:14

I may have missed it (honestly I skimmed a lot of the comments), and out of pure curiosity, what are you (Ben) doing for heat and ventilation?

I'm just curious to see how you tackle that. I had a neighbor in a small town convert their two car garage into a massive heated, carpeted in some places, workshop in other places kind of space. These things always intrigue me. It's always interesting when people try to make the most of the space they have and maximize potential.

As an eventual engineer I recognize the need for building codes and by-laws. They are put there for some good reasons. As a potential human being I agree that there is a lot standing in the way of some serious progress. The key is to not leave safety and quality behind, and I seriously doubt that's the case here anyways.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted June 03, 2010 at 12:34:03

I used to think that Toronto had a more lenient, but more expensive system then Hamilton. However, the sad reality is that you have to just do things and it is better to beg forgiveness than to be denied permission. Two examples in Hamilton I can think of are: Jimmy Gringos and that nameless yellow bar beside Hotel Hamilton. Does anyone know why it is nameless? I'm guessing bylaw nightmare.

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 03, 2010 at 12:48:59

I've heard from various sources that TO is waaaaay worse than Hamilton when it comes to this sort of thing.

The yellow bar is called 'The Brain'. It has a small sign in the lower window. Really cool place.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 03, 2010 at 13:00:44

My point in posting that paper was not that it directly reflected my view, it was that in 10 seconds on google you can dredge up very well thought out, well-referenced critiques of traditional Euclidian Zoning Laws, an idea which has a number of basic flaws, as the paper points out.

I'm not saying that there aren't better zoning laws, or that they can't do any good, ever. However, they're a poor substitute for actual community input into what happens in that community. Ryan's Jane Jacobs quote is right on the mark - communities have a number of legitimate fears about what goes on "in their back yard" which need to be adressed.

However, a bunch of blanket regulations imposed by bureaucrats who have little direct experience with the area in question can only attempt to mimic choices it thinks a community would make, or (more likely) what it thinks is best for it. We need real, neighbourhood scale democracy. And not just "homeowner associations" which cater to wealthy property owners in the area. These organizations need teeth, ie: the ability to, with a large majority vote, take legal action against offenders. Such a system would be "Performance based" in ways never approachable by even the most progressive zoning laws.

And as for slaughtering animals in my garage, I neither eat meat nor have a garage. As a vegan it constantly frustrates and amazes me how much more opposed most people are to things like butchering animals than I am (I see the utility), yet would never consider actually giving the stuff up. If you couldn't watch it, or live near it, why base your survival on it? People have been butchering animals within human settlements about as long as we've butchered animals or had settlements, and consigning it to big corporate factories in rural areas has produced methods of doing these things which are much more toxic and much less safe than traditional methods. Read (or watch) the section in Fast Food Nation on slaughterhouses.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted June 03, 2010 at 13:04:58

Hey Ryan, I'm aware that she is critical, of them, but she never advocates the removal of zoning as per Unindustrial's suggestion, just modifying the rules to create more classifications, and in turn more, smaller zones within a city. In the section of Dark Age Ahead that you've quoted, she clearly acknowledges that there are land uses that are destructive to some neighbourhoods (or 'zones' if you will). It can be called a 'performance code', but that's just renaming modified zoning bylaws. Semantics.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 03, 2010 at 14:41:56

Hi JonC, I don't think it's just semantics. Zone coding is based on the idea that we should focus on separating uses that might be incompatible; whereas performance coding is based on the idea that if you're trying to prevent the harmful side effects of incompatible activities, it makes more sense to focus directly on harmful side effects.

A zone based system says you can't put an incinerator next to a school; whereas a performance based system says you can't emit noxious gases next to a school. The fundamental difference between these approaches emerges when someone invents a small-scale, negative-emissions (i.e. the exhaust is cleaner than the ambient air) incinerator, which faces a blanket ban in the former system but would be perfectly acceptable in the latter.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2010-06-03 21:26:08

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By JonC (registered) | Posted June 03, 2010 at 18:14:20

I don't see that as fundamentally different. But that's because I don't see restrictions to use as being a necessary function of zoning, just the way it is now. The only fundamental to zoning is that rules are applied to an area. The types and numbers of rules aren't fixed, and neither are the number of types or size of zoned areas.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 03, 2010 at 22:40:56

All rules apply to areas, whether it be the boundaries of the institution which creates them (the property line, national boarder or municipal boundary), specific areas they regulate (the Highway Traffic Act, or various workplace protocols), or simply because the rule feels a need to meet the unique needs of a specific area (ie: making drug dealing or indecent exposure carry extra penalties if done near schoolyards).

There are a lot more fundamentals to zoning laws. And while they don't always regulate land use, they usually do, along with a lot of other blanket conditions such as building height or setbacks. My opposition to them is based on the fact that the redeeming value of such laws is slim when weight against the harm they do.

a) Zoning laws are inherently biased toward elites (such as development corporations). Municipal politics notorious for biases toward the development industry, as York U's Robert MacDermid demonstrated with his work on campaign finances. And as this topic's shown quite well so far, these laws are virtually impenetrable for individuals to navigate - they require large budgets for project approvals and many high-priced professionals such as lawyers or architects, pricing all but the richest individuals out of the market. And while large interests who donated many times the allowable limit to winning candidates (read the list of DiIanni's contributors...) can easily obtain variances to convert historic neighbourhoods into tenement towers (ala Effort Trust) or prime farmland into suburban sprawl (ala DeSantis), smaller organizations, businesses and individuals are rarely so lucky.

b) They add a significant and unneccessary amount of work and expense to almost any size, if not making it flat out impossible.

c) They're based on a lot of very bad ideas about centralization of industries which in fact produce much more toxic processes (as my leather tanning examples above demonstrate) than would home-scale decentralized production. As both open-source and corporate household manufacturing technologies explode, this kind of thing is going to become a lot less workable in any form.

d) Municipal entities operate on timescales which cannot hope to keep up with real-world changes in neighbourhood dynamics.

e) Zoning bylaws are based on fundamentally authoritarian notions about city-hall bureacrats knowing more about "what is best" for communities than those who actually live there.

And most importantly, for this and a million other reasons:

f) All of these purposes would be much better served by directly democratic institutions at the neighbourhood level, which could respond faster, much better represent community needs and wishes, resolve disputes more fairly and do a much better job at encouraging innovation.

Scrap 'em. They're just not worth the trouble.

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By jimmy nort (anonymous) | Posted June 04, 2010 at 00:36:04

don't worry, TnT. the brain jumped through all the hoops, many many hoops, including building permits and licensing from the city, fire department, health department and llbo.

that's why it took over a year to open. and that's why their capacity is so ridiculously low.

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By jimmy nort (anonymous) | Posted June 04, 2010 at 00:48:54

p.s. undustrial, zoning laws are based on the fact that your neighbour might be an asshole and not give a crap what anyone else thinks is in the communitie's best interest when developing his property.

there is a great example on locke right now of a developer trying to put a 60 seat bar patio next to a bunch of peoples houses. not cool. the developer probably doesn't live next door to a bar but wants to make a buck or two off of a bunch of people who might have to soon.

zoning laws suck sometimes but for the most part they keep idiots who are just trying to make a buck off the backs of everyone else from being douche bags. not perfect but better than nothing.

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By frank (registered) | Posted June 04, 2010 at 08:25:36

Jarod wrote: "As a potential human being"... You mean you're not now? LOL!

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By TnT (registered) | Posted June 04, 2010 at 08:28:40

The Brain? In reference to our city council it should be called the Brain Drain. What is the seating capacity in the bar? It should be in the range of 40 or 50 people I'm guessing.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted June 04, 2010 at 10:08:18

"there is a great example on locke right now of a developer trying to put a 60 seat bar patio next to a bunch of peoples houses. not cool."

Spare me. It's not a "developer". It's a long-established bar/restaurant owner who wants to expand his business. A business, I might add, which is much beloved in the neighbourhood (I used to live in the area and have many friends who still do).

He's currently being prevented from doing so because of a group of NIMBY people who want the high property value (and convenience, I'm sure!) of being close to highly desirable Locke Street, without having to take on any of the costs of being close to highly desirable commercial areas.

I don't understand, and have never been able to understand, why someone who doesn't want to live with a reasonable amount of traffic and noise from a commercial area, would move next to Locke Street!

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By JonC (registered) | Posted June 04, 2010 at 10:24:50

Unindustrial, I'm sorry you have the limited imagination to only envision the current system or nothing at all. And I don't think you properly see the effects of a lack of system.
No zoning laws becomes zoning anarchy.
A direct democratic approach would be a bigger mess than the current system. And I know you don't believe me when I type that, but consider, what population size is required to vote on changes the next door neighbours, the block, the blocks around yours, the ward, the city? Realistically it varies from project to project. Consider these: a) I want to install a cell tower in my back yard b) A group of eight neighbours decide to combine backyards to start a small pig farm c) A block of homes agrees to sell to a group that intends to raze the block and install a shopping complex d) Four block sell to a group building a power plant And what if the party(ies) disagree with the sample size of the vote, does it go to the courts? If they go ahead and do what they feel like anyway, what recourse is there?
Good luck sorting that out. It's the reason cities have zoning.

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 04, 2010 at 10:50:33

before any more intentional misinformation is spread, let's just say who the offending 'bar' is on Locke that is trying to ruin the neighbourhood. Ready for it?

The Courtyard Cafe. Yes, that's right. The nice little cafe and creperie with a beautiful, quiet courtyard patio behind their cafe. I guess in Hamilton we only like it when people use their back courtyards for more parking lots. I've almost been killed several times since Starbucks was allowed to put their parking lot behind their store. Can't say I've ever almost been run down while sitting on the Courtyard patio.

This isn't some dive bar on Barton Street. It's one of the most well behaved businesses on the street. They are now in an OMB hearing because one - yes ONE- neighbour complained about their liquor license application.

I would happily have the Courtyard move next door to my place (although I might go broke on their cappuccino's).

If you want to live somewhere without street life, commercial outlets and people on the sidewalk, move to virtually anywhere else in the city. I hear there are lots of nice, affordable homes on the Mountain and you won't have to worry about having a thing within walking distance.

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By A S mith (anonymous) | Posted June 04, 2010 at 13:21:30

JonC >> No zoning laws becomes zoning anarchy.

The first U.S. zoning laws were established in NYC in 1916. From 1790 to 1915, the population of America grew from less than 5M to around 100M. Each decade prior to 1916 saw more than 20% population growth. After 1916, no decade has reached 20%. If non-zoning America was such a scary place to live, why did it's population grow so fast?

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By z jones (registered) | Posted June 04, 2010 at 13:26:32

Christ sake. Everyone knows that the population growth rate goes down as a society gets richer. Ugh, just downvote and move on.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 04, 2010 at 13:46:40

Anarchy is exactly what I'm proposing:)

And as I've said, I'm all in favour of giving neighbours a fair say in what goes on in their community. Nor am I opposed to laws, with community consent, which set blanket regulations on specifically noxious EFFECTS (noise, pollution, safety etc). I just don't see blanket regulations on land use, necessary parking spaces or required setbacks to be an effective way to achieve either of those goals, especially since they impose significant costs and hassles upon the most important drivers of community diversity. A prime example of this would be that other Locke St patio/bar expansion issue: the West Town. Their main problem was parking requirements in zoning laws, which mandated more spaces than their expansion would allow. Now, given that I have a bunch of close friends and family who live within a block or two of the West Town, I understand the concerns about noise from the constant roar of cougars, bikers and hipsters. But preventing the most successful eating/drinking/music establishment in Hamilton's most successful walkable-scale mixed-use street from expanding because it wouldn't have enough parking? Who's writing these laws, Robert Moses?

And yes, I'm well aware that many of my neighbours are assholes. Hence all the shouting I just heard from next door. And one of the many failings of democracy is that it grants influence to assholes. As far as I've seen, though, every system which restricts democracy in the name of power ("enlightened" or otherwise) ends up run almost exclusively by assholes.

I'm not seeking to stop my neighbours from whatever noxious backyard pleasures they might have, be they a firepit, chickens or even two-stroke motorized lawn care. I'm seeking to find a way that hasn't proven again and again to cater willingly to those with enormous amounts of money and power who wish to install large-scale noxious installations. Zoning laws have not stopped companies like Rio-Can or Smart-Centres from building giant strip malls. I even know a prominent Hamilton development lawyer who has his main office in a secret location zoned only for residential use, yet regularly corresponds with city hall. Zoning laws do, though, prevent homeowners from converting their own hoses into shops, offices and galleries like those in Uptown Waterloo, which would do far more to preserve the area's "character" and direct the benefits of economic development to those who need it most.

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 04, 2010 at 14:18:15

don't forget - zoning laws now state that it is illegal to build homes and neighbourhoods in the same pattern, grid and proximity to the sidewalk as much of our older, urban neighbourhoods.

That's why infill homes always look so stupid, pushed way back from the street with useless front lawns.

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By Jarod (registered) | Posted June 04, 2010 at 19:59:24

@Frank

The human being permit line is only half as long as the building permit line...though admittedly too many in my lineup are given permits.

I thought I would make sure the city considered me a human being before announcing myself as one. That would be just weird.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted June 04, 2010 at 22:21:06

I've learned that the Pearl Company is fighting a major battle with the zoning laws. Does anyone know how that panned out?

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted June 05, 2010 at 00:20:46

z jones >> Everyone knows that the population growth rate goes down as a society gets richer

Then why is Alberta the fastest growing province, both in population and GDP? In contrast, Atlantic Canada, which has long been the poor man of Canada, with high taxes and high government spending, also has the slowest growing population.

As for zoning, most people want to maximize the value of their land, not destroy it. Take building height restrictions as an example. If these were abolished across the city, there would likely be far less student homes in Westdale and West Hamilton, because developers would build student condo highrises near the university.

This would reduce the costs to students, increase the value of the land near the university and decrease the harm done to nearby residential neighbourhoods. All of this would be accomplished by allowing buyers and sellers to figure out the best solution, not government.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted June 05, 2010 at 08:30:20

Anarchy and democracy are incompatible. Pick one. Until then all you're doing is complaining.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 05, 2010 at 10:48:37

Once again, and not so nice this time. Do some research before ya flame and troll. This is getting really insulting. I just searched this whole topic so far and you haven't offered up anything but opinions, insults, and vague predictions of doom should your cherished zoning laws go away. Your argumentation have been full of straw men and attempts to derail the conversation, as well as being much ruder than anyone else here.

Anarchy and democracy are completely compatible - anyone who'd done a lick of research on the topic would know this. Anarchists are fanatical democrats - if by that you mean believing people, not elites, should control their own lives. It's why American anarchists in the 1800s spent most of their time designing democratic communities and businesses. It's why Spanish anarhchists in the 1930s democratized their factories and towns in areas they held during the civil war. And it's why anarchist models of organizing and decision making (consensus/spokesouncils) has been the dominant means of radical organizing (excepting perhaps a few old-school communists in the peace movement). Honestly, I don't think I've seen anyone use Roberts Rules in a decade, at least not within activism.

Traditional representive democracy, the style used by the Canadian and American governments, is easily a century out of date, if not two. In simple numerical terms, Canada's election laws considers less than 30% of the public at large to constitute a ruling majority vote. Unlike much of the rest of the world which has made improvements, we have no runoffs, no recalls and very few referendums (and as the Amalgamation vote in TO showed, even fewer that are binding). One need only look at an average Canadian or American opinion poll alongside the voting record of Parliament/Congress to see how wildly out of step our rulers are with our desires. Never forget, citizens of the USSR got to vote, too.

I'm with Chomsky on this. Power bears the burden of proof. It is not my job to demonstrate that zoning laws are a failure. It is the job of those who impose and enforce these laws to demonstrate that they are not. And if it's possible, as happened to Ben, to walk into the Zoning department and get these kinds of admissions and recommendation from people at the desk, then they surely aren't doing that.

Every dollar and every delay you add to the cost of a rennovation or development makes it less likely to happen. These application fees and the costs of professional help with permits constitute an extremely regressive form of taxation on development. We've heard lots of evidence that these laws aren't particularly effective, let's see a single shred of evidence that they are.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted June 05, 2010 at 12:04:40

Funny, I was considering you the troll. I offered you points to consider that you completely ignore and chose to weaken your arguement in the process.

That zoning regulations exist in one shape or another in all developed countries is pretty much proof positive that they function. Of course you again seem to imply that I support the existing regulations in their current form, which, again, I don't. More classic trollism.

And now you've gone a huge rant on government forms (which I fundamentally agree with you on by the way). I'll ask you a quick question as to the compatibility of anarchy and democracy. If there are three people in this relationship and there is a fundamental disagreement (that is that there is no changing of minds) on a yes/no question, can you force the third party to accept the decision of the other two? If so, it would appear that the individuals rights are trumped by the collective, but if not, than an individual can exert power that destroys the benefits of a society.

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By Ben (anonymous) | Posted June 05, 2010 at 16:19:50

Thanks for all the comments. To answer some of the questions:

- Heating: the Forced Air Gas runs through the garage. I need to punch a hold in the bulk head, cut out a section and put in a grill. Should take me 10 minutes. For this very simple procedure I may also need a permit :)
- Electrical: I may need to add a couple of new sockets. Very simple to do and yes, I will probably also need a permit :) The electrical permits are issued by an independent agency, not the city. I got a permit for the office I recently constructed. The inspector was very helpful and not overly expensive ($170 per visit). The certified electrical contractor however, cost a fortune. In future I will do all the electrical myself :)

As hard as this has been for me, I'm sure it's harder for others. I have a friend of a friend who recently opened up a new shop on Queen east. She described the permit process she had to endure - what a nightmare. There is something very wrong when our permit processes are discouraging the very kind of development we need to be encouraging.

Ben

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By Jason (registered) | Posted June 05, 2010 at 16:43:50

Yup. And a lot of the new sprawl homes being built around Hamilton are being constructed with no permits. The entire system is geared to sprawl and greenfield paving projects. Just ask the whopping 22 seat Brain on James North or the painfully slow reno to MY Dog Joe also on James.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 06, 2010 at 02:23:53

I would never suggest that true democracy would entail such a "tyranny of the majority". That's why I'm a supporter of consensus decision making. It's been common in organizations and the governing of numerous entire societies.

And as for the fact that zoning laws exist in all "developed countries" (countries which, by definition, have very similar government and economic structures to ours) is not evidence that it works. The last time I was in Europe they were every bit as concerned, if not more, as us about big-box stores, fast food joints and gentrification as those of us in North America.

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By TnT (registered) | Posted June 06, 2010 at 09:05:45

Jason, I reread your above comment about The Brain and it said 22 seats? Does that mean only 22 people can enter it? I wonder what the capacity of Joe Buttinski's is, or Prince Edward Tavern, or any other "dive" bar.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted June 06, 2010 at 20:46:23

Ben - You are going to put in a cold air return right? Otherwise you will have endless problems getting it warm.

I sure hope that you get the electrical checked, I am sure your neighbours, visitors and future owners would all appreciate it, nothing like an electrical fire at the Christmas Eve party to put a real damper on the holiday season. A lot of our by-laws are there because there is an unlimited supply of idiots out there who will build dangerous and/or obnoxious projects.

Laws are always a problem when they restrict what we want to do but are wonderful when they restrict what others want to do that we disagree with. The ultimate NIMBY attitude. No zoning laws would certainly result in more high density student housing in Westdale. Might be good for some of the students but it is about the last thing in the world families want beside their house. I bet the guy building the high density student complex is not living beside it.

Laws are there to protect the majority of society. Sure they are a pain for some of us at certain times but I shudder at the thought of living without them.

A Smith - You don't suppose that all the growth nonsense you have been spouting has anything to do with the presence of oil in Alberta do you.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 00:39:26

Mr.Meister >> Laws are always a problem when they restrict what we want to do but are wonderful when they restrict what others want to do that we disagree with.

Laws don't restrict bad behaviour, fear of negative consequences does that. That's the flip side of freedom, responsibility. Since no person is an island, people that want to live a rich, healthy, long life will need friends, or at least a minimal number of enemies. This is why zoning laws are unnecessary, because it assumes that people are selfish to the point of becoming non-rational.

>> You don't suppose that all the growth nonsense you have been spouting has anything to do with the presence of oil in Alberta do you.

You mean the tar sands? The resource that has been just sitting there, waiting for risk taking individuals to figure out a cost effective way to extract and sell it consumers?

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By frank (registered) | Posted June 07, 2010 at 13:06:20

A Smith wrote: "Laws don't restrict bad behaviour, fear of negative consequences does that."

It's the laws that create the negative consequences...

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted June 09, 2010 at 01:03:26

A Smith - In case you never looked there is a lot more than oil sands in the way of oil in Alberta. When the fisheries were a major natural resource the Maritimes was a flourishing place. Now, not so much.

I have been around long enough to have seen the total absence of people caring about what others think of them and only worry about making a buck or three. Your drivel about actions being modified by what others think is total nonsense. Ever watch Holmes on TV? Imagine how much worse it would be if there were no standards. Laws are the standards of society by which we live. Sometimes they really get in the way but it is a compromise that is far better than living without them.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted June 09, 2010 at 02:30:43

Mr.Meister >> Imagine how much worse it would be if there were no standards. Laws are the standards of society by which we live.

You may find this an interesting read...

http://mises.org/daily/4264

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By Carlos and Luisa (anonymous) | Posted February 13, 2011 at 14:02:17

I have a question, I tried to help someone renting a room for a period time of three to six months, , after six months, we asked to him to leave the room, because we were trying to rent our own house, due to economical situation, he did not. Instead he called the police, and they misinformed us to the Building Dept of Miami, Fl. They sent us a violation notice for $500.00. They say that we have efficiencies for rent in our home, which is not true. When we bought the house, 24 years ago, we converted the garage into a room,with no permit, which we already upgraded. We were five people, plus my parents and my sister. Now we have a hearing and my question is if somebody have some good ideas I mean good terminology for these cases, They say that I have the right for a translator, which is not case, eventhough I was not raised in this country, I know for sure that my English is not bad. They also say that I have the right to present witnesses, which I dont have. Please, dont leave alone, all ideas are welcome!!! Thanks,

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By YYZ'er (registered) | Posted March 09, 2011 at 19:32:52

Good evening thanks everyone for taking the time to comment about the state of our well signed and carifully zoned out little piece of the pie we love to call toronto..

Can anyone reply with best way to apply of go through the process of getting a permit to convert a garage...i figure before throwing away the babies i would change some diapers and feed the little sucker its milk, see if that works.

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By hammertime (registered) | Posted March 09, 2011 at 23:53:32

Carlos, it sounds like a good time to hire a lawyer..

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By SmashCanada (registered) | Posted February 25, 2012 at 15:54:51

Dear All, I've been reading your comments on garage conversions. I have a few questions :

  1. What are the insurance implications, if a detached garage is described as such in the deeds, a survey that a neighbour carried out and the insurance documents ?

  2. What are the worse possible repercussions and consequences of say the city detecting the conversions having been carried out without a permit ? Fines, de-converting the garage. Can one apply for a permit retrospectively ? (probably not I know, but no harm in asking).

  3. Could one still obtain independent permits and certifications for say sewage lines, plumbing lines, and electricals ?

  4. What if the newly converted garage is rented, and the tenants refuse to vacate or pay rent further down the line ? Could they hold the owner to ransom (as it were) over the lack of permit ?

  5. What about tax inspections ?

  6. What if my neighbour decides to obtain a permit for an extension to his house - would the inspector report the converted garage ?

Many thanks in advance to all for your thoughts ! :0)

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