|A house under a building dispute; photo by Carlos Osorio, and copyright 2012 the Toronto Star|
You can read the articles for more information, but suffice to say, the couple has taken multiple avenues to keep the addition (including a complaint to the United Nations), and have been turned down at each. One of the lingering questions is how the couple's daughter (who owns the house, and is a lawyer), and the elderly husband (a retired realtor), would be unaware that a building permit was required, or why they were unaware what they built was in violation of their local by-law.
I can't answer that, but what I can answer is how you can (roughly) determine how to read a zoning by-law (ZBL) in order to understand what can be on a particular parcel of land as-of-right in Toronto. Different municipalities/provinces/countries will have their own ZBLs, but there is potentially a lot of overlap. Before continuing, I want to make it clear that while I can show you how to read a ZBL, certain aspects of a property (such as the property line, and grade differences) will likely require a professional assessment. Also, if you're thinking about doing something to your property, do it right! Spend the money to hire a professional (or at the very least, talk to the city planner for your ward) to ensure anything you do is within your rights.
One final warning: it's not uncommon to find buildings that are not compliant with the current ZBL, but are considered as "legal non-conforming." This means that the construction or use pre-dates the ZBL in question, and will be allowed until such time as the use ends (i.e. the business moves out, or the building is torn down). While the details are a little unclear, this seems to be what happened with the Tsengs above; the "termite infested" structure was built before a ZBL change, and when they tore it down and replaced it (albeit 45 centimetres longer than before), the building became out-of-compliance. Remember: any change to a property must conform to the current ZBL, not whatever one the building was built "into".
The first stop: the Internet!
You can get a lot of information about your property online. The City of Toronto has recently created a very nice online program that uses GIS software to map the ZBL in effect for a property. You can find this awesome service at http://www.toronto.ca/zoning/. Let's pick a random property, such as 38 Brunswick Avenue:
I understand that the text there may not be too large, but here's the two relevant sections I want to point out in this picture:
1. Residential Zoning Code: R (d1.0)(x848)
2. Commercial Residential Zoning Code: CR 3.0 (c2.0; r2.5) SS2 (x2363)
These codes briefly outline the uses, density, and exceptions within an area. The "d1.0" represents the maximum density allowed on a lot, referred to in a by-law as the "maximum floor space index". Put simply, it's how big a building is allowed on your lot. I highlighted the second number for the Commercial Residential Zone to highlight that buildings where multiple uses are allowed are often broken into two densities.
A quick (very unofficial) measurement of the lot that 38 Brunswick lies on measures a perimeter of 100m, with a lot size of about 330sq m (about 42m x 8m).
If we ignore setbacks and height restrictions, given that the density is "1.0", that means that any structure can be built in any manner as long as the total floor space in the house measures 330 sq m or less. For example, a building that is one floor could take up the entire lot of 330sq m. More typically (given setback requirements), a building that was two floors, with 165sq m each would work too, as would two floors, with the bottom one being 200 sq m, and the top being 130 sq m. At another extreme, an 11 story building with floors equaling 30 sq m would technically qualify too, although (aside from smashing the height limit), it would be a pretty thin structure!
If the density allowed was 0.7, that would mean that a structure of 231sq m (330 x 0.7) would be allowed on the lot. If the density allowed was 2.5, that would mean that a structure of 825sq m (330 x 2.5) would be allowed.
(As a note, the City of Toronto has a great diagram if you're still confused.)
For a Commercial Residential property that has two different uses, a "total" density is shown, along with the maximum density that each half can have. Let's look at the zoning code again:
Commercial Residential Zoning Code: CR 3.0 (c2.0; r2.5) SS2 (x2363)
Breaking it down, the total density of the building allowed is 3.0 (three times the area of the property). The two totals in the brackets represent the maximum density allowed for a particular type of use. Thus, "c2.0" means that a maximum of twice the "total floor space area" is allowed for the purposes of commercial use. Likewise, a maximum of 2.5 the "total floor space area" is allowed for the purposes of residential use. Since the maximum total floor space area allowed cannot exceed 3.0, there must be some combination, ranging from c0.5, r2.5 up to c2.0, r1.0. Anything in between would be allowed (such as c1.5 and r1.5), as long as the total doesn't exceed 3.0.
Other things you can find online
Zoning by-laws have a large (I mean large) amount of information about what you can legally do with your property before you have to get an exception. Information about set backs (i.e. minimum distances from the street or other neighbours), outdoor sheds, decks and porches, etc. can all be found in your typical ZBL.
Height is very important, but it's easy to find out; on that same City of Toronto GIS doohickey, you can click on "overlay layers" and then "height" on the left menu to find out how tall you're allowed to build in an area (For 38 Brunswick, I checked: it's 12m). Finding out the remaining issues require some heavy reading into the zoning by-law unfortunately, but with some persistence (or via an expert), you can figure out what you need. Luckily, the current by-law is online for you to look at.
Reading through it, one thing that will likely sting any homeowners on Brunswick Ave. is the maximum building depth found in section 10.10.40.30; for a semi-detached, the maximum depth is 17m. Many of the houses on the block are over 20m in length (38 Brunswick's is about 24m), which means that they're (likely) "legal non-conforming" structures (as a side note, this is probably what is stinging the people in the article above).
That leaves only one more thing to check, which is the 'x848' in the by-law. This number represents an "exception" in the ZBL that is specific to this particular area, and... okay, they're a pain in the butt to figure out.
Getting a bit more hands on: exceptions
Exceptions allow buildings to legally break particular portions of a ZBL. They're quite common, and generally will reflect the "character" of a neighbourhood. Unfortunately, they tend to be extremely legalistic in nature, and reference old ZBLs. In our "x848"'s case, there are some exceptions granted by ZBL 438-86, an "old" City of Toronto ZBL from pre-amalgamation. Unfortunately, a copy of it isn't available online; you need to contact the city to obtain a copy (or at least, the information within it). ZBL amendments from 1998 (when the city was amalgamated) are available, but for everything else you'll need to do some footwork. Contacting the Toronto Building department at the city should be able to get most of the information you need.
Other things to look for are Committee of Adjustment (CoA) decisions; these represent "minor" adjustments to what is allowed on the property. Now, what represents "minor" is a good question, but generally, a minor adjustment will allow someone to "break" a by-law to allow small changes to their property. For example, an addition might require a few extra inches that would otherwise contravene the ZBL; an application to the CoA might allow it despite it being a violation on paper. The decisions are not listed in the by-law, but they can be obtained at City Hall for a small fee. However, if you've been the owner of a property for a while, you'll likely be aware of what CoA decisions have been reached on your property, so this step might be unnecessary.
Examining a property online can be pretty time consuming, but as above, the basics aren't so hard to find out. It's when you really start getting into the particulars that an expert can help! Still, ignorance is certainly no excuse. As the story of the Tsengs above shows, fighting the city can be really expensive, and they will fight it, even if it costs them half a million. Save yourself the grief!