FAQ & Hot Topics

FAQ & Hot Topics

These are frequently asked questions and emerging “hot” topics with general answers - please contact staff directly to discuss the particulars of a proposal before purchasing property, purchasing plans or applying for a permit. The Planner on Duty may be reached at 250-390-6510 or Toll-Free via the RDN main line at 1-877-607-4111 or by email at planning [at] rdn.bc.ca.

Note: This information is no substitute for legal counsel or professional advice.

Hot Topics


The RDN has recently adopted policy regarding applications for Retail and Production Licences. Please refer to the Policies section on the Bylaws, Policies, Forms & Maps page for more information. See the navigation pane on the left of the screen.


Recent changes to the Agricultural Land Commission Act and related regulations have significant implications for residential uses within the ALR. If you are looking to buy property, build or replace a dwelling unit, please refer to the ALC's latest information Bulletin(s), found at the bottom of their website

Property Information

Where can I find all the information related to my property?


Addressing is assigned by the RDN and is handled by our mapping team (GIS). Properties that do not have addresses will not be assigned an address until a building permit for the principal building is applied for. Temporary addresses to facilitate hydro applications, for example, can be assigned however are not permanently assigned and added to our mapping until a building permit is applied for. For further information, please refer to the Addressing webpage under GIS/Mapping.


Zoning sets the rules for how you may use your property, by setting out what you can do (ie. Secondary suites, Home Based Business), where on the property it can be located, and at what density (e.g. how many dwelling units are allowed). Other sections of the zoning bylaw, besides the zone itself, also regulate activities on your property such as parking, setbacks to ditches, or home-based business rules. The applicable bylaw can be accessed on the Planning Bylaws, Policies, Maps & Forms page.

To learn what zone applies to your property or properties around you, refer to the zoning map which is incorporated into the “Land Use Regulations” map and available through our mapping tool. For more information, see “Maps” below.

ALR - Agricultural Land Reserve

There have been recent and ongoing changes to the Agricultural Land Commission Act and related Regulations. Land within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) is governed both by the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) and RDN bylaws and policies. It is important to familiarize yourself with ALC regulations, policies and bulletins as well as RDN bylaws and policies before purchasing property within the ALR, purchasing building plans, clearing vegetation (e.g. brush, trees), bringing on fill, removing soil, excavating, or establishing/expanding a use. This includes creating new accesses and driveways. Contact the RDN planning department to learn more about the use of ALR land as well as the ALC. The ALC provides a wealth of information, as does AgriService BC and the Ministry of Agriculture. Please refer to their websites for further information.

ALC WebsiteAgriService BC WebsiteMinistry of Agriculture Website

Plot Plans | Site Plans | Site Surveys

“Plot Plans” or site plans, are submitted to the RDN through various application processes, typically through building permit applications. Building Inspection was not in place across the RDN until 2011 which means that the RDN may not have site plans on file.

To access building records, you must either be the property owner or an authorized agent. To apply, fill out a Request for Information Form and submit to Building Inspection Services along with the applicable fee and authorization form (where applicable). To learn more, please refer to the Building Inspection Frequently Asked Questions page.

Alternatively, the RDN’s mapping tools can be used to look at an airphoto of a property with the approximate location of lot lines projected over top. The mapping tools also offer the ability to measure distances and area. If accuracy is not important, this may serve your purposes. See “Maps” below for more information.

If you are seeking a site survey of a property, you will likely need to work with a BC Land Surveyor to prepare a site survey on your behalf.

Maps - Zoning, Airphotos, etc

To find out what your zoning is, you will need to reference a map. A wide range of maps, including those referenced by the zoning bylaw or electoral area official community plan bylaws, can be viewed using our mapping tool found embedded in the Planning  Bylaws, Policies, Maps & Forms page or the GIS/Mapping page. This includes the Agricultural Land Reserve, topography, known water features, known eagle and heron nesting trees, mapped floodplains, and known coal workings, for example. Instruction on how to use the mapping tool is also available on these pages. 

Well & Septic Information

To find copies of your well record or septic filing, you will need to contact the applicable Provincial office. For well records, contact FrontCounter BC. For septic filings, contact Island Health Nanaimo (south): 250-755-6215, Parksville (north): 250-947-8222.

The RDN may or may not have copies available in our building permit records. To apply, fill out a Request for Information Form and submit to Building Inspection Services along with the applicable fee and authorization form (where applicable). To learn more, please refer to the Building Inspection Frequently Asked Questions page. 

Easements | Covenants

Inquirers seeking access to land title documents such as easements and/or covenants may do so through the BC Land Title Office’s website. The Land Title Office also provides property ownership information, copies of Title, and charges listed on title, such as easements, covenants and building schemes. If you have trouble understanding these documents, you may wish to seek legal counsel on your behalf.


Any permits listed on title can be accessed by informal request through the RDN’s Planning department. See our contact information on the left of the screen (you may need to scroll up). These are permits such as development, variance, or temporary use permits. In addition to permits registered on title, the RDN may also have orders of the Board of Variance on file for a particular property.

Land Use Questions

Setbacks & Height

Rules for siting buildings or structures are largely found in your zoning. This can depend, however, on the feature or use. For example, setbacks for buildings used to house animals are found in the general regulations section of the applicable zoning bylaw (see Chickens, Horses, and Other Animals, on this page). Alternatively, setbacks to features such as watercourses, or the sea, are also found in the general regulations section of the applicable bylaw – refer to “Setbacks to Water Features” on this page for more information.

Rules around height for buildings or structures are also found in your zone. There are, however, exemptions for some things, like flag poles. Exemptions can be found in the general regulations section of the zoning bylaw, under “Height Exemptions”. The appropriate zoning bylaw can be accessed on the Planning Bylaws, Policies, Maps & Forms page.

The zone will direct you to the appropriate section of the bylaw for rules about uses not listed within the zone.

Setbacks to Water Features - Watercourses, Streams, the Sea

It is important to understand that there are bylaw “setbacks” which apply to siting a building or structure near a water feature, and that there are environmentally sensitive areas identified by a biologist that may be larger than a bylaw setback that should not be disturbed. These areas are protected by development permit areas and/or may be protected by covenants on title. Water features are also considered to be a hazard – either due to flood risk and/or steep slopes along their banks – vegetation plays an important role in protecting life and property from such hazards. Setbacks are also imposed by the floodplain bylaw as well as minimum elevations for habitable buildings above the natural boundary.

*Please contact planning staff before clearing a property with a water feature or removing/pruning trees or vegetation near a water feature, to learn more about development permit requirements associated with water features.

For setbacks to water features and development permit area guidelines (freshwater, marine coast), refer to the appropriate zoning bylaw accessed on the Bylaws, Policies, Maps & Forms page. The floodplain bylaw can also be found on this page. It is recommended to discuss your plans with planning staff to ensure that you understand how these documents apply to your property and your particular project. Contact information is listed on the left of the page.

Fences & Retaining Walls

Whether or not lot line setbacks and height rules apply to a fence or retaining wall depends on whether or not it is considered to be a “structure” by the zoning bylaw. The definition of structure in most plan areas exempts fences under 2 metres (6.5 feet) in height and retaining walls less than 1 metre (2.5 feet) that hold back less than a metre of soil (less than 1:1). Electoral Area F (Coombs, Errington, Hilliers, Whiskey Creek) zoning rules allow for fences under 2.5 metres and retaining walls less than 1 metre in height, within the lot line setback. Refer to the definition of “structure” in the appropriate zoning bylaw for more information under Bylaws, Policies, Maps & Forms

Secondary Suites & Carriage Houses

Secondary suites are allowed in the following zones:
Bylaw 500: AG1, RS1, RS1.1, RS2, and RU1 – RU10 (inclusive);
Bylaw 1285: A-1, R-1, R-2, R-3, R-4, FR-2

Secondary Suites are not allowed in all other zones, unless specifically listed as a permitted use in that zone.

For more information about Secondary Suites, please see rdn.bc.ca/secondary-suites

Suites in the ALR

On February 22, 2019 amendments to the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) Act came into effect that do not allow detached suites on the ALR. Secondary suites within the principal dwelling unit, however, are still supported. For more information, please contact the ALC at 1-604-660-7000 or consult their website at, www.alc.gov.bc.ca/alc/content/home

Our mapping tool can be used to determine if a property may be located within the reserve. See buttons below. Please note that this information should be confirmed with the ALC.

Refer to the secondary suites brochure and secondary suites policy and general regulations section of the appropriate zoning bylaw for more information under Bylaws, Policies, Maps & Forms.

Chickens, Horses & Other Animals

Most properties are allowed to have up to five hens (household poultry). However, it will depend on the size of your property and in some cases the zoning, as to whether or not you may have roosters (household animals) or horses (household livestock). The rules for the keeping of such animals can be found in the General Regulations section of the zoning bylaw for your Electoral Area under “Keeping of Animals”. These rules set out limits on how many and what types of animals can be kept as well as how they are kept. Siting, or where your coop, chicken run, or barn can be constructed on your property can be found in the same section of the zoning bylaw, under “Setbacks – Buildings and Structures” for “Agriculture and Farm Buildings, Structures and Uses”.

Zoning - Bending the Rules

Sometimes zoning rules like lot line setbacks and height don’t make sense for a particular property. There may be limited building area, due to a steep bank or a water feature, and it would just make more sense to build closer to the road or the neighbouring property. There is a range of reasons why you might want to “bend the rules” or, to use the right word, “vary” them. Where there is a good reason and where steps have been taken to minimize any potential for negative impacts (such as invading a neighbours privacy, or blocking sightlines at a road intersection), an applicant has a good chance of receiving approval from the Board to vary zoning rules to alleviate hardship.

Existing Buildings & Structures

Frequently, properties developed during the 1970’s or earlier have buildings that are close to or are on the property line. Depending on when your building or structure was constructed, you may not need to do anything until you decide to replace it or significantly alter it. If this is a recent construction, you will need to either move or re-build the structure or significantly reduce the amount that the building or structure exceeds zoning, and apply to vary the bylaw (a variance). Refer to “Applications” on this page for more information about variances.

Zoning - Changing It

Zoning would need to be changed where it doesn’t allow a use or density that you would like. For example, a rural zoned property that does not allow for a mobile home park. In order to change the zoning, you would need to apply to amend the zoning bylaw. First, you would need to learn what your land use designation policy is under the official community plan for your electoral area and determine if it supports the change. Changes to the zoning bylaw must be consistent with the applicable official community plan. To learn more about the application process, refer to “Applications” on this page.


Many properties pre-exist within floodplains, oceanic or otherwise. Some are mapped and can be confirmed by referencing our mapping tool. Others are within a designated floodplain per the floodplain bylaw, for example, any property within 100 m of an un-named water feature that meets the bylaw's definition, is within a floodplain. The bylaw regulates how far a building, or fill to elevate a building, must be from such a water feature. It also regulates how high above the feature habitable space within a building must be. For more information, consult planning staff. The RDN floodplain bylaw can be found on the Bylaws, Policies, Forms & Maps page, linked on the left of the screen.

Eagle or Heron Trees

All birds within the nest are protected by the Wild Life Act. Eagle and Heron nesting trees are also protected by RDN regulations. For more information, refer to the Eagle & Heron Nesting Tree Development Permit Area listed under the applicable zoning bylaw, and the Wildlife Tree Stewardship Community Mapping Network Atlas.

Business in the RDN

Businesses operating within the boundaries of the RDN must be in compliance with zoning. The RDN does not issue business licenses, nor is a business license required to operate a business within its boundaries. However, home-based businesses are strongly encouraged to register with the RDN, and in some cases, Provincial Agencies require support from the RDN in order to issue a license or approval.

Please note: Operating a business within an incorporated area, such as the City of Nanaimo, City of Parksville, or Town of Qualicum Beach, requires a business license. Please contact these local governments directly for more information.

Land Use Information Letters

Prior to establishing a new commercial business within the RDN, it is recommended to confirm with planning staff that the proposed location has suitable zoning. Please contact Planning to request this information in writing, if required. There is a fee of $40.

Home Based Business

Home-based business regulations are embedded within the RDN’s two zoning bylaws, Bylaw 500 and Bylaw 1285. These regulations establish the scope and scale of commercial uses permitted within residential and rural zones. This includes regulations around signage, parking, floor area and runoff control standards.

For more information on Home Based Business in the Regional District of Nanaimo, Please see rdn.bc.ca/home-based-business

Provincial Licences & Approvals

Where required, licenses and/or approvals from Provincial agencies are necessary to operate a business within the RDN, such as for liquor and cannabis retail sales, child care or food service. In some cases, the Provincial agency requires the RDN to support an application for a license before it can be issued. Applicants for Provincial licenses such as liquor or cannabis retail, are required to make an application to the RDN for review. Please be advised that the required licenses and approvals may need to be submitted in support of a building permit application, such as to establish a catering service or child care facility as a home-based business within a residential building. For more information refer to the applicable provincial agency. Note that in some cases, the RDN has a policy in place, such as for liquor and cannabis licensing. These can be found on the Bylaws, Policies, Forms & Maps page linked on the left of the screen.


The Home Based Business regulations found in the applicable zoning bylaw under "General Regulations" allow for a bed and breakfast within applicable zones. A bed and breakfast must be within the principal dwelling unit, of which the permanent occupant is the business owner. Note that the first meal of the day must be provided and that bed and breakfasts are not permitted on properties that have a secondary suite or carriage house. Please refer to the home-based business regulations found in the applicable zoning bylaw for more details. Zoning bylaws can be found on the Bylaws, Policies, Forms & Maps page linked on the left of the screen.

Applications & Permits

Application Forms

Application Forms for planning approvals, such as development permits, the home-based business registry, and land use information letters, can be found on the Bylaws, Policies, Forms & Maps page linked on the left of the screen. 


Fees for planning applications can be found in the Fees Bylaw found on the Bylaws, Policies, Forms & Maps page linked on the left of the screen. For more complex applications, such as subdivision or amendments, you may wish to contact planning staff. Contact information is listed on the left of the screen (you may need to scroll up).

Development Permits

How do I cut down trees or build near a ditch, or an Eagles nest, or in a floodplain, or above a known aquifer?

If your property is within a Development Permit Area, a development permit may be required prior to undertaking any development activity such as soil disturbance, vegetation removal, land alteration or subdivision.

Development Permit Areas are areas designated in Official Community Plans that the community wishes to protect or enhance, such as environmentally sensitive features and farmland. Development Permit Areas also protect development from hazardous conditions and establish design, lighting, and layout features for some residential and commercial areas.

To learn which development permit areas apply to your property, please contact us or refer to the mapping tools linked on the right of the screen.


How do I build taller than allowed, or closer to a property line than allowed?

Variances are a tool that allow for the accommodation of atypical (unusual) development scenarios, like sites with extreme topography, hazardous conditions, environmentally sensitive features, or commercial uses not anticipated by the bylaw (ie. zoning). Applicants are advised to bring their proposals into compliance with the regulation as closely as possible, to minimize the need for a variance, and to help mitigate the impacts of that variance on other properties, the functionality of the site and aesthetic values. Applicants must identify such impacts and propose solutions to lessen their effect.

Please note that variance applications are a public process. It is suggested that applicants discuss their plans with neighbours and tailor their proposals to address feedback.

There are two options to apply for a variance to a regulation. One is through the Board of Directors, the other is through the Board of Variance. Please note that the Board of Variance can only make decisions under very specific circumstances. For more information about the Board of Variance, please refer to the Board of Variance below.

Board of Variance

What is a Board of Variance?

Any local government that has adopted a zoning bylaw or rural land use bylaw must establish a Board of Variance (BOV). See Section 536 of the British Columbia Local Government Act. The Board of Variance is an independent board consisting of three volunteer members of the public who have been appointed by the Board of the Regional District of Nanaimo. These members may not be an officer or employee of the local government; they do not have representation on the Regional District of Nanaimo Board of Directors.

The Board of Variance reviews applications and makes decisions on minor variances to zoning and rural land use bylaws when it is illustrated by the applicant that compliance would cause undue hardship. In order to grant a variance, the Board of Variance must be of the opinion that the variance or exemption does not:

+ result in inappropriate development of the site;

+ adversely affect the natural environment;

+ substantially affect the use and enjoyment of adjacent land;

+ vary permitted uses and densities under the applicable bylaw; or

+ defeat the intent of the bylaw.

Who can apply to the Board of Variance?

In the Regional District of Nanaimo, the Board of Variance shall hear all representations from Electoral Areas A, C, E, F, G and H. Registered property owner(s) may apply to the Board of Variance or may appoint an agent to act on their behalf.

Properties in Electoral Area B (Gabriola Island) can apply to Islands Trust, which governs land use planning for Gabriola. Properties inside municipal boundaries within the Regional District of Nanaimo can apply to their municipal office Board of Variance.

What issues can go before the Board of Variance?

A person may apply to the Board of Variance to request that a minor variance be permitted from the requirements of a zoning or rural land use bylaw. The applicant must adequately demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the Board, that compliance with certain bylaw provisions would cause the applicant undue hardship.

What is a minor variance?

A minor variance may be viewed as a matter of judgment and common sense after considering all the surrounding circumstances. The decision on what is, or what is not a minor variance is at the discretion of the Board of Variance and will be decided by the Board upon consideration of all information provided by the applicant. The onus falls to the applicant to demonstrate the variance to be minor in nature.

What is undue hardship?

A person may apply to the Board of Variance for a minor variance if they allege that compliance with any of the following would cause hardship:

a bylaw respecting the siting, dimensions or size of a building or structure, or the siting of a manufactured home in a manufactured home park;

the prohibition of a structural alteration or addition under section 531 of the Local Government Act;

a subdivision servicing requirement under section 506 of the Local Government Act in an area zoned for agricultural or industrial use.

Undue hardship does not include financial hardship.

Can I apply for a Variance on a non-conforming building?

A person may apply for relief of certain restrictions imposed under Sections 528 - 532 of the Local Government Act with regards to legal non-conforming buildings* if:

+ undue hardship would be caused to the applicant through compliance;

+ it would not result in inappropriate development of the site;

+ it does not adversely affect the use and enjoyment of adjacent land;

+ it does not vary permitted uses and densities of the applicable bylaw; and

+ it does not defeat the intent of the bylaw.

*The same criteria apply to conforming buildings.

How do I apply to the Board of Variance?

The first step is to call or visit the Planning Department or the Building Department to discuss your application prior to submitting the application. You will need information such as the legal description, plan, drawings, and surveys. Board of Variance application forms are available at the Planning Department at the Regional District of Nanaimo office and online, seethe BOV application form found on the Bylaws, Policies, Forms & Maps page. Applications for the Board of Variance are received by the Board of Variance Secretary at the Planning Department counter on the 1st floor of the Regional District office, 6300 Hammond Bay Road in Nanaimo. There is a deadline for the submissions of applications prior to each Board of Variance meeting. See the BOV schedule found in the application package. All applications must be complete with a fee submitted prior to consideration.

How much does it cost to apply to the Board of Variance?

A Board of Variance Application fee is $400 and is payable to the Regional District of Nanaimo when the application is submitted. The application fee is non-refundable.

Will my neighbours be notified of my application?

Yes, as required by the Local Government Act, the Board of Variance must notify all owners and tenants of the subject property and of land that is within 50 metres of the subject property. Notification will include details of the proposed variance and the date of the Board of Variance meeting; recipients will be afforded an opportunity to present their evidence and arguments to the Board of Variance at the meeting. The Board of Variance Secretary will also accept written submissions to be presented at the meeting. In addition, the electoral area director of the Regional District of Nanaimo will be notified.

If a variance is granted, how long do I have to begin construction?

The Local Government Act states that construction should be substantially started within two years from the order, however, it gives the Board of Variance authority to specify a different time frame if deemed appropriate. The Board of Variance shall consider the time frame for each individual application.

Can I appeal a Board of Variance decision?

A decision of the Board of Variance is final (Section 542 Local Government Act). If the application is denied, the applicant may elect to submit an independent Development Variance Permit application to the Board of the Regional District of Nanaimo. The applicant should first consult with staff at the Planning Department.

Meeting Times and Location

The Board of Variance meets the second Wednesday of every month if there is a current Board of Variance application to be heard. The meetings are held at 4 pm in the first-floor Committee Room at the Regional District of Nanaimo office, 6300 Hammond Bay Road, Nanaimo. There is a deadline for the submission of applications prior to each Board of Variance meeting. See the current Board of Variance Schedule found in the application form listed on the Bylaws, Policies, Forms & Maps page.

Temporary Use Permits

Can I establish a use on a property for a short-term basis?

Where a use is not allowed on a property due to zoning, an option is to apply for a temporary use permit. Temporary use permits can be used for short-term uses, like a sales office for a condominium development, or a food truck. In addition, they can be used to “test drive” a new use, prior to applying to permanently amend a zoning bylaw. Where the trial goes well, a zoning amendment application can be made without also amending the OCP, where the use is not supported. Temporary use permits are good for up to three years and can be amended to allow for up to an additional three years. Contact planning staff to discuss your proposal and to determine if this is an option supported by the applicable OCP.


How do I establish a business or use in an area where it’s not currently allowed?

An amendment application is required when a property owner wishes to change an existing Official Community Plan (OCP) land use designation or policy, the property zoning or subdivision district, or any other land use regulation contained in RDN bylaws (ie. Sign Bylaw).

Please Note: Where a parcel is designated within a development permit area (DPA) by an OCP and the proposed development is not exempt from the DPA guidelines, the property owner or agent is also required to apply to the Board of Directors for a development permit in addition to the amendment application.


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