Wendy Siddall owned a rotunda in Hebron, N.S., and few surrounding hectares of the land. When she decided to subdivide the land, selling part of the property and keeping a parcel for herself, she thought she had the right to do so.
“I had informally been told I could put septic down there,” says Siddall, “but when I talked to the municipality, they told me there were bylaws limiting the number of times that a property could be subdivided.”
She learned the previous owner divided the property to its limit in the last 50 years. “I was just surprised that there was a law,” says Siddall, who eventually sold the Hebron land and moved to Yarmouth, N.S. “The plans to develop that property were then kiboshed.”
To avoid similar project-halting oversights, homeowners need to understand the basics of property boundaries and who to consult before building.
Nick Rudnicki is a contractor at RSI Projects in Halifax. Part of his job is to think about the rules and regulations affecting a client’s land before they hire builders. He says the design phase of any project should be twice as long as the building phase to ensure proper planning.
“The most expensive thing you will ever hear on site is ‘We will deal with it later,’” says Rudnicki. “There are thousands of these questions that can be answered up-front and should be answered up-front. Otherwise, you’re just asking for a nightmarish disaster once the backhoe shows up. It really comes down to the trifecta of time, money, and sanity.”
The rules vary by location, but in most cases, you’re only permitted to occupy a certain percentage of the land you own. Your local bylaws and building regulations also govern setback or how close to the property line you can build.
The rules can differ between urban and rural areas of the same city. “There isn’t a set rule for how close you can build to the property line,” says Rudnicki. “That’s a function of each zone and each density regulation that applies to that. You need to sit down with a geotechnical engineer and walk through that.”
Setbacks can also determine how close you can build to natural formations, like bodies of water.
“Any waterfront properties, especially here in P.E.I., there’s regulations that prevent you from a portion of your land,” says Allan Tierney, owner of Blue Heron Construction in North Rustico. “The norm is 75 feet [about 23 metres] from the high-water mark. They refer to it as a buffer zone; they’re allowing for erosion.”
There’s also the question of who else has the right to use your land. These are often outlined an easement, a written agreement between two or more parties to share a piece of property. Your land likely shares an easement with utility companies, granting access to lay pipe and wires.
You might also share an easement with a neighbour. For example, a shared driveway that branches out to two homes. Another common easement is a right of way, allowing people to cross part of your land to reach their property or a public space.
In rural areas, it’s particularly important to investigate before placing a septic system. You need to understand how your water sheds and soil type can play a role.
“You’re giving consideration to the neighbourhood as a whole,” says Marc Cormier, a land surveyor with Hughes Surveys and Consultants in Saint John, N.B. “And trying to create an environment that is better for the whole, rather than allowing every individual owner to build the property to their desire.”
It’s hard to even start building if you haven’t accounted for these factors. “Fortunately, the city has enough checks and balances in place that you probably shouldn’t be able to start building until the city has gone through all of these things with you,” says Rudnicki.
A property survey was the end of Siddall’s plans, but homeowners aren’t always stuck when it comes to an ordinance blocking a planned project. You can usually apply for a variance, a legal exception to existing limits on the property, as reviewed and approved by a zoning board.
Whether you’re building from scratch or considering a property addition like a shed or fence, Cormier recommends employing a licensed surveyor or working with a contracting company that regularly navigates property law.
“We’re often seen as a nuisance expense,” says Cormier. “The cost of a survey is not cheap, but in the long run, it prevents problems from happening.”
Your first step could be as easy as grabbing a pen and a napkin.
“Do a very crude drawing of what you would like to do,” says Rudnicki. “Literally, an approximate scribble, with approximate measurements from where you think the property line is. Take that to the [vital statistics] office. You can get a lot of answers from them with just a crude preliminary sketch.”
Easement: A legal agreement allowing specific use of part of a property by someone besides the owners. This could include a shared driveway or the location of power and water lines.
Right of Way: A specific kind of easement allowing traffic to cross your property to reach a destination. This could be a walkway that goes through your property to someone else’s property or a public location, like a lake or park.
Setback: The prescribed distance from your property line that you’re allowed to build. This distance varies from municipality to municipality, and even from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.
Variance: Permission from your planning office to modify your property in a way that violates a bylaw.