A Permit Primer

So, you want to build an addition on your country property? Be prepared to become an expert in zoning and building permits – as well as the needs of your local conservation authority.

June 14, 2024 | | Country Living 101

The demand for building permits is brisk in the hills of Headwaters. In the town of Erin, the building division issues about 300 building permits each year. Joe Forte, the town’s chief building official, says that number will grow substantially, as homeowners add decks and other amenities to the nearly 2,000 new homes coming to the area over the next three or four years. Becky MacNaughtan, the chief building official for Dufferin County, adds the high demand for housing is inspiring many homeowners to add apartments in basements, over garages or in new outbuildings.

For major projects or those that include demolition or load-bearing walls, architects and professional trades will likely be involved. They’ll know what permissions are necessary and will help get stamps of approval. If you’re considering making some changes, here’s a primer on the basics.

Do You Need a Permit?

Building permit requirements are consistent in all jurisdictions because building departments enforce the Ontario Building Code, a provincewide statute, but it’s good to start with a phone call to your municipal office. Consider doing your homework first on the building department websites for your area in the County of Dufferin and its municipalities, Erin or Caledon.

Does every project need a building permit? No, but most do and some fine details can make the difference. For example, a new storage shed up to 15 square metres doesn’t need one. However, if it will be used for anything other than storage, it can’t be more than 10 square metres without a permit. New windows won’t need one if they’re the same size or smaller than the originals. Changes to the zoning of a building from, say, residential to office, will require a building permit even with no construction. All this might sound like a daunting process, and it can be.

ontario building permits
Illustration by Ruth Ann Pearce

Whatever your plan, connect with the experts before you get too far along with your design. As Erin’s Joe Forte puts it, “Just a conversation about what you’re doing and the scope of the work. At times we do ask for a sketch if the person isn’t sure what they want to do or how to explain it.” Caledon, Erin, and Dufferin have online submission processes and guides, but you can go into their offices for help. Dufferin also has new how-to videos to help guide the process.

Building departments are mandated to issue residential permits within 10 days – Dufferin averaged 7.2 days through 2023. However, that time doesn’t start until they have all the information, which includes zoning and conservation authority permissions.

Appeasing the Conservation Authorities

Building departments generally protect the integrity of construction and the safety of people; conservation authorities protect the ecology of watersheds and other natural features on their properties – and they can be very protective, even mother-bear ferocious. Architect Harry M. Lay, who works on many local projects, puts it another way: “The conservation authority can be like an angry dog on the other side of the fence. You must humour and feed it whatever it wants until it goes to sleep. Only then can you jump the fence.”

If you live in a watershed – and in this neck of the woods it’s hard not to – you will likely need a development permit from a conservation authority: Credit Valley, Toronto and Region, Grand River, Saugeen Valley or Nottawasaga Valley. There may be constraints and limitations to work around, and requirements to meet before they sign off.

You may also need a further permit from the Niagara Escarpment Commission, an arms-length agency of the Ontario government that oversees the Niagara Escarpment Plan, if you’re inside its 195,000-hectare development control area, which cuts a jagged path covering 34,000 hectares through Caledon and Dufferin. This can take months (or even longer), so give them a call early on.

Again, technology can help. Conservation authorities’ websites have interactive maps to help you figure out if your property is their concern. What’s more, your project may require permission from a conservation authority even if you’re not building a structure – if your landscaping plans might affect the environment.

A word of caution: If you get started without permits and are discovered, keep in mind there are penalties, and you might have to tear everything down and start over.

About the Author More by Tony Reynolds

Tony Reynolds is a freelance writer who lives happily above Broadway in Orangeville.

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