Zoning: a quick guide for churches

Imagine your church has found the ideal property in the perfect location: you visualize the finished building in your mind, a vibrant hub of church ministry. Beautiful! Suddenly your dream is rudely interrupted: Ring, ring, the City is calling… you can’t build a church there!

Your municipal land use regulations

As your church considers different parcels of land for your expansion or relocation project, be aware of municipal approvals requirements. Your city won’t allow you to simply build anything you want to, anywhere you want. The mechanism they use to regulate development is commonly called a Zoning Regulation or Land Use Bylaw.

Categories of land use

Every property is classified by it’s overall land use or zoning, such as Residential, Commercial, Industrial, Public Use or Special Use District, and often these broader categories have many sub-categories such as “Multi-Residential – High Density Low Rise”. A church may or may not be allowed in any one of these zones.

Development Permit process

The Development Permit process is commonly used by municipalities to formally decide which developments to allow. A Place of Worship can be either a Permitted or Discretionary use. Some land uses allow a Place of Worship to be developed as long as it follows certain rules. Other land uses may allow a Place of Worship at the discretion of the city planners, where each project is considered on it’s particular merits within the neighborhood. Rezoning a parcel of land, or changing it’s official designation, can sometimes be accomplished through a separate formal process, but should not be considered a quick, cheap or easy option.

Church zoning examples

As an example of church classifications, the Calgary Land Use Bylaw lists three categories of Place of Worship: Small, Medium and Large, and each one dictates the maximum size of the main assembly space as well as parking and other requirements. For example a Place of Worship – Medium will have a main assembly space of between 300 and 500 square meters in area, and require a minimum of one parking stall for every four people in the main space. There will also be other limitations such as building height, ratio of building area to landscape, and setbacks.

Be aware of zoning limitations

While the terminology and process can seem confusing, the main question to ask when looking at a piece of land is: Does the Land Use Bylaw (zoning) allow a Church on this property? And if so, what are the limitations? Your realtor should know what the existing zoning is, but if not you can call your municipal planning department. Many cities now have their zoning information online.

Don’t let your dream turn into a nightmare. For help deciphering your local zoning bylaw contact Kelly or David at Parker Seminoff Architects, or leave a comment below.

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