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Site Alteration By-law Development

Project Status: 

Overview and Key Facts


Staff is developing a new by-law to regulate site alteration. This initiative responds to policy direction in the City's Official Plan for such a by-law to be established.

The ability for municipalities to enact a Site Alteration By-law is provided by the Municipal Act. Such a by-law can apply to all or part of the municipality and would define the nature of site alterations that may be permitted.

The Site Alteration By-law is intended to:

  • Prevent drainage problems
  • Protect the productivity of soils in designated Agricultural Resource Areas
  • Protect designated natural areas and other identified natural heritage features (such as significant woodlands and valleylands) from negative impacts
  • Reduce the risk of root damage to City-owned trees or other trees protected under the City’s tree by-laws
  • Establish basic rules for how site alteration is done, to avoid impacts to neighbours and the environment

Where site alterations are undertaken that are not in keeping with the rules, the by-law would provide the ability for the City to require corrective actions.

Staff have been working with key stakeholders to develop a draft site alteration by-law. These stakeholders include representatives from other government agencies, affected industries, and local interest groups. Public input is also being invited through postings on the project web page at key stages including:

At this point, it is expected that recommendations related to establishing a Site Alteration Bylaw will be brought forward for consideration by Committee and Council in early 2018.

Key Facts about Site Alteration and Site Alteration By-laws

  1. Site alteration as defined through the Municipal Act involves the clearing and grading of land, including the removal of topsoil and the dumping of fill.
  2. A key focus for the site alteration by-law being considered for the City would be to define how alterations can be undertaken in accordance with policy directions of the Official Plan to ensure no negative impacts on drainage, natural features, agricultural productivity, soil and water quality, neighbouring properties, and public health and safety.
  3. In addition to implementing policy directions in the Official Plan related to acceptable site alteration, a site alteration by-law provides the authority to address site alteration activities that are contrary to Official Plan policies.
  4. Currently the City has by-laws that deal with limited elements related to site alteration through the following:
    1. The City's Drainage By-law, which is a version of a site alteration by-law. This by-law however, only applies to activities that impact off-site drainage.
    2. Eight topsoil preservation by-laws date back to pre-amalgamation. These by-laws do not provide consistent rules across the City related to Top Soil preservation.
  5. Conservation authorities also respond to site alteration issues, but only within areas covered by their regulations (for example, within flood plains, along watercourses, or in and adjacent to provincially significant wetlands).
  6. Under the Municipal Act, a site alteration by-law CANNOT apply to:
    1. Normal farming practices (including installation of tile drainage, and clearing lands for cultivation)
    2. Licensed aggregate resource extraction
    3. Development in compliance with approved plans of subdivision or site plans
    4. Lands already regulated by the conservation authorities

As we heard it report: Draft Site Alteration By-law - November 2017

The comment period for the City’s draft Site Alteration By-law closed on September 25, 2017. A total of 38 written submissions were received. Most of these were from residents or community-based organisations; however, comments were also received from the following project stakeholders:

  • Carleton Landowners’ Association
  • Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association
  • Greenspace Alliance of Canada’s Capital 
  • Federation of Citizens’ Associations
  • Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (Kemptville District)
  • Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority
  • Ontario Federation of Agriculture
  • Ontario Woodlot Association
  • South Nation Conservation

City staff have reviewed all of the comments received, and will consider them carefully during the finalisation of the draft by-law.  The revised by-law will be brought forward for consideration by Committee and Council in early 2018.

Several commonly heard comments are provided below, along with responses by staff.

The by-law will interfere with farming.

The proposed by-law includes numerous exemptions for farmers, which were discussed with representatives of the farming industry.  The City recognises that activities such as cultivating fields, spreading manure, returning fallow lands to cultivation, maintaining farm drainage systems, and installing and maintaining fences are all normal parts of farming.  Staff will continue to work with local representatives of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and other farming organisations to ensure that the by-law’s provisions are clearly understood and that normal farming practices are not impacted.

The by-law is supposedly intended to protect farmland, but it does not address the issue of urban sprawl.

The decision to expand a city’s urban boundary is made as part of a comprehensive Official Plan Review under the Planning Act.  The City of Ottawa has generally avoided expanding its urban boundaries into areas of prime farmland, which are identified in the Official Plan as Agricultural Resource Areas.  The by-law cannot regulate decisions under the Planning Act, but it can limit activities such as topsoil stripping that could reduce soil productivity and lead to efforts to have an area of agricultural land redesignated to permit development.  

Why are developers exempt from the by-law?

Developers are not exempt from the by-law.  The development-related exemptions in the by-law only apply to projects that have already undergone review by the City, and have been approved under either the Building Code Act or the Planning Act.  This includes projects undertaken by private residents (e.g., addition to a house, construction of a large outbuilding, etc.) as well as by professional land developers (e.g., a new residential subdivision).  These exemptions are provided to allow people who have followed the proper process and received approval for their project to move ahead without further delay.

The by-law specifies that site alteration associated with approved developments must be done in compliance with any conditions of approval imposed by the City.  If those conditions are not complied with, the by-law enables the City to issue and enforce stop work orders and corrective orders.  

Why is the City exempt from the by-law?  Shouldn’t it have to follow its own rules?

The Municipal Act specifies that a site alteration by-law legally does not apply to activities undertaken by the City.  However, City staff who routinely engage in site alteration activities as part of their work will be briefed on the requirements of the by-law.  Many of the rules in Schedule A (regarding notification, sediment and erosion control, protection of the work area, fill quality, and discovery of archaeological resources) are already standard practice for City projects.  

Ottawa City Council may, at its discretion, direct staff to comply with the provisions of the by-law when undertaking site alteration.  

The by-law should not operate on a complaints basis.

Some stakeholders and residents would prefer that the City implement a permit-based by-law.  They feel that the City should review and approve all site alteration activities in advance, rather than react to complaints after the fact.  Staff note that the draft by-law does require prior approval for site alteration within or adjacent to sensitive environmental lands; however, for most activities, a rules- in- regulation approach will be used.    

Other stakeholders and residents object to the complaint-based system because they feel that it is open to abuse, and that farmers or other landowners could be forced to stop work whenever the City receives an anonymous phone call.  Staff acknowledge that frivolous or malicious complaints are a possibility, as with any other municipal by-law.  However, in most such cases, the City’s investigation would consist of a quick desktop review or a visual inspection from the roadside to determine whether the complaint was valid.  If not, there would be no need to inconvenience the landowner at all.

The by-law gives City staff too much authority to enter onto private property.

The provisions in the by-law are based on authority from the Municipal Act, and are consistent with other City of Ottawa by-laws already in effect, as well as with by-laws from other municipalities across Ontario.  City of Ottawa staff involved in by-law enforcement normally contact the resident upon arrival, as a courtesy before beginning their inspection.  For practical reasons, inspections relating to site alteration complaints would take place during daylight hours.  

Draft by-law - August 2017

The draft Site Alteration By-law [ PDF 249 KB ] is now available for your review.  This version includes explanatory notes in the margin that are not part of the by-law but may help you understand how the by-law was developed and what the different sections are meant to address.

Please provide your feedback to Amy MacPherson no later than Monday, September 25.

Amy MacPherson, Planner II
Planning, Infrastructure and Economic Development
Fax: 613-580-2459 

The draft by-law has been developed in consultation with key stakeholders, using the City’s existing Drainage By-law as a foundation.  This proposed new by-law would replace the Drainage By-law and the former municipalities’ topsoil protection by-laws. It would not apply to any area already regulated by one of our local Conservation Authorities, such as a floodplain or a significant wetland.

What would this mean to you?

In most cases, residents would not need to obtain the City’s approval before beginning site alteration, but they would need to follow the rules in the by-law.  

The proposed rules for site alteration can be summarised as follows:

  1. Get permission before working on someone else’s property.
  2. Do not cause drainage problems.
  3. Follow all other applicable municipal, provincial and federal rules.
  4. Do not damage the productivity of agricultural soils.
  5. Get City approval if your work will be impacting significant natural areas.
  6. Get a tree permit before working around protected trees.
  7. Notify your neighbours if you will be working within 30 metres of their property.
  8. Notify your City planner before working on a site during the planning process.
  9. Control sediment and erosion, where necessary.
  10. Protect trees and other things located near your work area, where necessary, to prevent accidental damage during the work.
  11. Use clean fill.
  12. If you find any archaeological resources, stop work and call the City and Province for advice. 

Rules 1, 2 and 3 apply to everyone. The draft by-law allows for exceptions to several of the other rules for property maintenance, minor landscaping, farming, woodlot management, approved developments, and aggregate extraction.  



You do not need to ask the City for approval or notify anyone to top-dress your lawn, put in a new garden bed or plant new trees or shrubs.  In addition to rules 1, 2 and 3, rules 9 to 12 of the by-law also apply.  For most gardening projects, meeting these rules is not difficult – don’t work during extreme rain events, be careful, and use topsoil from reputable suppliers.  It is extremely unlikely that any archaeological resources would still be present in developed residential areas.

Septic fields and in-ground pools 

If you need to replace your septic field or want to install an in-ground pool, you would be subject to the same rules that apply to gardening. If you will be working within 30 metres of your property boundary, you would also need to notify your immediate neighbours. Check to see if the project would affect the critical root zone of any City-owned tree or any tree protected under the City’s Urban Tree Conservation By-law, and get a tree permit if needed. Other regulations do apply to such projects (contact the Ottawa Septic System Office for more information about septic fields, or your local Client Service Centre for information about the City’s Pool Enclosure By-law).


You do not need to ask the City for approval or notify anyone before carrying out normal farm practices.  Normal farm practices include activities such as cultivating fields, spreading manure, installing and maintaining fences, planting or removing hedgerows and windbreaks, and maintaining drainage or irrigation systems.  Rules 1, 2, 3 and 9 to 12 apply.  Most farmers are already using best practices to protect their soils, and will not be affected by these rules.


If you have already received approval from the City under the Planning Act or Building Code Act, you are subject to rules 1, 2 and 3 and must follow your conditions of approval. If you will be working within 30 metres of your property boundary, you will need to notify neighbouring property owners before starting work. If you want to start work on a site before receiving City approvals, you must notify the City planner overseeing your application and follow rules 9 to 12.  Other rules in the by-law may apply depending on the location and context of the site.  


If the City receives a complaint under the new by-law, staff with expertise in the issues related to the complaint will investigate it to determine if any rules were not followed. If staff determine that a contravention has occurred, the City can require work to be done to correct the problem.    

As we heard it report - August 2016

The comment period for the City’s discussion paper on Site Alteration [PDF 1.48 MB] closed on August 5, 2016. Ten written submissions were received. Six were from residents or community-based organisations, while four were from the following project stakeholders:

  • Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association
  • Greenspace Alliance of Canada’s Capital / Federation of Citizens’ Associations
  • Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (Kemptville District)
  • Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority

City staff have reviewed all of the comments received, and will consider them carefully during the development of the draft by-law.

The following is a summary of comments received on several key issues identified in the written submissions.

Issue 1: Rules in regulation versus a permit approach

This was the most commonly addressed issue, with eight out of ten submissions providing comments. Two submissions indicated support for allowing site alteration to proceed without the need for prior approval, within limits established through existing regulations or the proposed by-law. Six submissions disagreed, indicating that the City should instead require proponents to obtain approval prior to undertaking site alteration. Five of the submissions were particularly strong in this respect. A commonly cited reason for preferring this approach was that it would enable the City to proactively avoid or reduce impacts instead of only being able to respond after impacts had already occurred.

Issue 2: Vegetation removal

Four submissions indicated that the by-law should address vegetation removal as a type of site alteration. One additional submission questioned whether vegetation removal that did not involve grade changes would be included, but did not indicate support or opposition.

Issue 3: Environmental Impact Statement

Three submissions addressed the potential requirement for an Environmental Impact Statement in cases where site alteration would affect natural heritage features. Two indicated support for such a requirement, while the third indicated this would be overly stringent.

Issue 4: Notification

Three submissions indicated support for requiring notification in advance of site alteration.

Discussion Paper - June 2016

After reading this paper, we hope that interested stakeholders and members of the public will join the discussion and help define appropriate rules for site alteration activities in Ottawa.

Discussion Paper [PDF 1.48 MB]

Contact person

For more information about this project, contact:

Amy MacPherson, Planner II
Planning, Infrastructure and Economic Development
Tel.: 613-580-2424, ext. 14873