An Overview of Land Use Planning in British Columbia


Land use planning in British Columbia occurs at three levels, provincial, regional and local. Each of these levels have specific powers allocated to them. Municipalities and regional districts are creatures of statute with no inherent power or authority.

The majority of municipal and regional powers come from the Local Government Act, RSBC 2015, c. 1 (the “Act”) and the Community Charter, SBC 2003, c. 26.

The City of Vancouver derives its planning and land use management powers from the Vancouver Charter, SBC 1953, c. 55.


The enactment of the Act in 2000 was in response to changing views surrounding the governance of municipal powers and municipal autonomy. Prior to the enactment of the Act, municipal powers had been governed under the Municipal Act, which had expanded over the course of the 1900s to over 1,000 sections.

It was felt that the Municipal Act had become far too cumbersome and was based on close provincial supervision of local government affairs, which was no longer consistent with the views held in other provinces across the country. As a result, the Act was implemented to enable municipalities and regional districts to have broad powers with regard to implementing their legislative objectives. The effect of the Act was to give municipalities more flexibility and to recognize municipalities as an independent, responsible and accountable order of government. The purpose was to give municipalities more autonomy over the operation of municipal affairs to ensure that the powers conferred on local governments would be interpreted broadly while still ensuring cooperation and consistency between local governments.

Purposes of the Act

The Act enables the creation of regional districts which are comprised of either a combination of municipalities or a combination of municipalities and electoral areas. Regional districts are governed by a board of directors composed of representatives from each member of municipality and each electoral area within the district. These directors are not chosen by electors but are rather appointed by their respective council and serve at pleasure.

At a regional level, land use planning comes in the form of a Regional Growth Strategy and is governed under Part 25 of the Act. The development and adoption of the Regional Growth Strategy is subject to specific procedures including consultation with members of municipalities and a mandatory settlement procedure where voluntary adoption of the Regional Growth Strategy by a municipality is not achieved. Once adopted, the Regional Growth Strategy applies to the entire regional district.

The purposes of a Regional Growth Strategy are set out in section 849 of the Act and is to promote human settlement that is socially, economically and environmentally healthy and makes efficient use of public facilities and services, land and other resources.

A Regional Growth Strategy is designed to be long term and must cover a period of at least 20 years from the time of its initiation and must include the following:

(a) a comprehensive statement on the future of the region, including the social, economic and environmental objectives of the board in relation to the regional district;
(b) population and employment projections for the period covered by the regional growth strategy;
(c) to the extent that these are regional matters, actions proposed for the regional district to provide for the needs of the projected population in relation to

 (i) housing,
(ii) transportation,
(iii) regional district services,
(iv) parks and natural areas, and
(v) economic development;

 (d) to the extent that these are regional matters, targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the regional district, and policies and actions proposed for the regional district with respect to achieving those targets.

The scope of a Regional Growth Strategy is primarily restricted to those matters that require coordination between or that affects more than one municipality, more than one electoral area or at least one of each in a regional district.

Part 26 of the Act grants municipalities the power to enact bylaws to create zones and to regulate the parcel sizes of land, density of land use and permitted uses of each zone. They also engage in long-term land use planning through the adoption of an Official Community Plan (“OCP”). Much like a Regional Growth Strategy, an OCP is a statement of objectives and policies to guide decisions on planning and land-use management. While the objectives of an OCP are long term, unlike a Regional Growth Strategy which requires 20 years of coverage, an OCP is only required to cover a period of 5 years.

Because the same piece of land can be subject to competing interests and pressures from regional districts and municipalities, the Act emphasizes the coordination and integration of the various planning objects to promote cooperation between regional districts and municipalities. Section 865(1) requires consistency between a regional district’s bylaws and that district’s Regional Growth Strategy. Section 884 requires that municipal bylaws be consistent with the OCP. There is a requirement that the OCP must include a regional context statement that identifies the relationship between the OCP and the regional district and identifies how the OCP will become consistent with the Regional Growth Strategy.

Another feature of an OCP is the ability to create and designate development permit and heritage conservation areas and set out a description of the special conditions or objectives that justify the designation and the guidelines for the issuance of development permits. Section 884 of the Act prohibits the adoption of bylaws or the undertaking of any works that are inconsistent with the OCP. The OCP or the zoning bylaw set out the guidelines for applicants to follow when preparing their development permit applications.

The next layer of land use control is the ability conferred under section 903 of the Act to create zoning regulations to regulate the use, density, siting, size and dimensions of land and buildings within each zone. This includes the ability to prohibit or limit any use or uses in a zone and to vary the zoning regulations depending on use, location and siting within the zone.

The zoning power under the Vancouver Charter is even broader and it allows the City to regulate the external designs of buildings and confers a broader discretion under which the City may approve development.

The Act encourages coordination and integration amongst the planning documents to promote cooperation between local governments. However, that cooperation does not detract from the limitations placed on regional district and municipal powers to manage land. To that end, regional districts, through the implementation of a Regional Growth Strategy, have the ability to shape and guide land-use planning across various municipalities; however, they do not have the ability to dictate individual municipalities decisions on local developments. Section 873 of the Act restricts the exercise of authority under Part 26 (Planning and Land Use Management) to the municipality or to a regional district only where that part of the regional district is not in a municipality.

Author: John A. McLachlan
Originally printed in RIEBC’s Input magazine – Spring 2015, Vol. 43, No. 2