If there’s one area of law where the totally disconnected nature of government is painfully clear to every single person involved, it’s Zoning law. Zoning laws dictate what can be build, and where, within cities. They claim high and noble aims of protecting homes and neighbourhoods from destructive and disruptive businesses. But in reality they act more like a big wet blanket everywhere, which prevents any kind of development by the vast majority of the city’s people. The complicated and mind-blowingly expensive maze of regulations, permits, and licenses imposed by laws makes the whole process a little like trying to fill out a year’s worth of tax forms, on acid, at gunpoint, in under an hour.
It goes without saying that most people in this city or others don’t have tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on zoning applications. Even if you could scrape together the cash to buy a building, restore it, and do something interesting with it, you’d likely never be able to get “approval” from the city to start. Those who do have the resources – deep pockets and large legal departments – all tend to be the same type of companies. And that’s why so many of our new developments look exactly the same. Our city has done a great job of building strip malls, condos and suburbs, like most others. But small, independent establishments are dropping like flies, and this is one of the many reasons why.
The justifications for zoning laws usually include things like “protecting neighbours and communities”. But they’re imposed on communities, not by communities. None of these laws have stopped Hamilton from becoming a thoroughly toxic and “dirty” city. Big toxic industries can afford to pay fines (if they even get fined) for covering half the town with soot. And enforcement of existing laws against wealthy development firms has been shown to be extremely lax, whether it’s new building permits in the ‘burbs, or overlooking taxes and bylaw violations for derelict buildings in the inner city.
Worst of all, these Zoning laws don’t get rid of things like toxic industries or nightclubs, they just concentrate them. And that creates “sacrifice zones” when the city designates areas like the North End as “industrial” zones where anything goes. Or the bar district (Hess Villiage) right next to concentrated senior’s housing (along Hunter/Jackson by Caroline and Hess).
Locally, we’re currently watching the demise of the Pearl Company, an old (and formerly empty) industrial building which was being used as an arts and performance space. After a long fight over zoning issues, the owners are giving up. The building is zoned “residential”, though it has never been used for housing, and at this point the rezoning costs are past the $200 000 mark. That’s enough to buy two area homes. And it doesn’t do anything practical for the owners, patrons or neighbours. Just City Hall.
Many people, such as Ward 3 Candidate Mark Dimilo blame the owners of the Pearl Company for trying to go ahead without the right papers, but that isn’t being argued. Clearly they gambled and lost. The question is, what are we accomplishing with these laws? The neighbourhood is a wreck – I love living along Barton and I wouldn’t live there. My friends who have tell horror stories. And these kinds of fees make sure it stays that way.
Bureaucrats at City Hall do not “own” Hamilton. They do not own us, and they do not own our neighbourhoods. They are not entitled to designate uses of every parcel of land within the urban boundary, and they certainly aren’t entitled to collect hundreds of thousands per building in fees when people disagree. Our communities are not required to live up to their personal visions of “redevelopment”.
There is a much cheaper and easier way to address community needs and concerns, as well as resolve disputes. Give communities a say in what gets built there. Make businesses responsible to neighbours, not City Hall, and let them work out their own solutions. The current system only requires both sides to harass bureaucrats until they’re heard, and turns the whole issue into one big adversarial mess. Some projects do get through, because of favourable and cheap amendments brought through political pressure. This process mixes business and politics in the worst way, turning much of City Council’s work into one big approval process for “favoured” projects.
If anyone should be making these decisions it’s communities, and if anyone should be taking these tens of thousands of dollars in fees it’s the people most directly affected by it.

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