How Toronto’s War on the Churchâ„¢ ended up going

I should start by noting that I’m by no means an expert on planning or urbanism at all and I’ve only been following this issue whenever it’s popped up. I’ve tried to go through whatever I can of the respective documents and files, but there’s only so much I can understand as an amateur. Basically, the best I can do is read and try to follow what happens at council so that’s what I’ll be focusing on.

So a few months ago, I noticed this thing scary graphic being passed along on Facebook about how Toronto was declaring war on the church or some such thing. Basically the war was conducted on two fronts:

  1. The harmonized zoning bylaw
  2. The Toronto District School Board raising rents on religious groups by some inordinate amount

I’ll be focusing on the harmonized zoning bylaw. First, a bit of history is necessary to put everything in context.

As you may or may not remember, what we now know as the City of Toronto used to be a two-tier municipality consisting of six different cities (Scarborough, North York, East York, York, Etobicoke, and Toronto) and a regional layer of government on top called Metropolitan Toronto. Everyone was happy with this arrangement, so obviously, the provincial government needed to wreck it.

Sometime during the first term of Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolutionâ„¢ Progressive Conservative provincial government, it was thought that Toronto (and a few other cities around the province) could run more efficiently as one giant city instead of a bunch of different cities. And so, in 1998, the Government of Ontario decided to smush all of these cities together even though no one wanted it to happen and here we are today, with one giant City of Toronto. Obviously, having to merge six different governments together into one giant government is not a trivial task and even now, 15 years later, we’re still trying to work out the kinks. One of those kinks is planning and zoning regulations.

You see, because Toronto used to be six autonomous cities, this means that all of those cities each had their own sets of planning regulations. This is obviously not ideal. So in order to try and simplify things (or at least make them less unwieldy), the city tried to work on harmonizing the bylaw across the city. This has been a work in progress for many, many years and almost happened in 2010 but it kind of blew up and everyone went back to the drawing board and here we are again.

Now a few months ago, someone found out that the newest version of the proposed draft zoning bylaw turned out to severely restrict the zones where places of worship could be established. Even though the immediate reaction was over the top spiritual war rhetoric, the concerns weren’t unjustified. Essentially, places of worship were limited to select commercial and institutional zones and that was all, no residential or industrial zones. Was it intentional? Was it a mistake? Who knows? But it’s helpful to remember that planning staff was trying to go through an incredibly complex set of regulations and trying to make everything somehow work together.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with how City Council works, essentially, stuff starts out in the various committees before heading out to the council floor. And so, religious leaders and groups went and got in touch with their councillors with their concerns and went and deputed at Planning and Growth Committee meetings and the bylaw was revised into something much more reasonable before being shipped off to council. In other words, there was something that was overlooked by someone, interested and concerned parties gave input and worked with their representatives, changes were made, and civic governance worked as intended.

With that done, we fast forward to the April 3 meeting of Toronto City Council. At this particular council meeting, the mayor made the zoning bylaw and Hero Burger at Nathan Phillips Square his two key items. Most people will remember the second one because councillors basically argued about whether to put a Hero Burger in Nathan Phillips Square for two or three hours and it featured the deputy mayor reading a selection of items from the menu of Hero Burger among other things. But before the Hero Burger shenanigans started, a pretty healthy chunk of time was spent dealing with the zoning bylaw and within that debate, there was a substantial amount of stuff dealing with places of worship.

As was mentioned earlier, initially, places of worship really were significantly impacted negatively by the proposed changes. However, all of that got significantly reworked and when it hit the council floor, it was something much more reasonable. The proposed bylaw now allowed for places of worship in all residential and commercial zones, various institutional zones, and industrial office zones. This was mostly fine, except for some fighting over whether to allow places of worship in light industrial zones.

The context behind this particular scrap is that a common thing for smaller churches to do is to rent or establish their church in areas which are zoned for industrial use because the cost of doing so is a lot cheaper. However, this puts them at odds with the city’s attempts at trying to preserve its industrial lands. What tends to happen is because the land value in these zones tends to be cheaper, condo developers often buy up these lands and try to get zoning changes on the lands. The result is that there are fewer and fewer places in the city where industry can set up operations.

Of course, churches don’t tend to be huge developers or speculators buying up cheap land to flip over to developers, so what’s the problem with letting them on industrial lands? The problem is that places of worship still negatively impact the use of industrial lands for industry. The reason for this is because a place of worship is classified as a sensitive use under provincial regulations and so the surrounding industry has to restrict their industrial activities, even though they’re in an industrial zone.

The particular motion (Motion 3, Part 3) to allow places of worship on light industrial zones was eventually lost and the initial recommendations from Planning and Growth Management were basically passed. Of course, this doesn’t meant that churches are suddenly getting booted from industrial lands. Most churches that are already there legally based on whatever bylaw was in effect before gets grandfathered and gets to stay there. It’s just new churches won’t be able to move into industrial zones.

So tl;dr, everything worked out in the end and it’s going back to staff for one more go-over before being finalized for reals.