Issues with Environmentally Protected areas

“Are you looking for waterfront? Are you looking for a place to build your dream house? Then look no further than this nature lover’s paradise.” This could be the listing description for any number of vacant lots in the County – just like the aerial photo of the hypothetical listing shown above.

Property aerial view

However, to avoid a nasty surprise later, you or your buyer agent should do a thorough review of the Official Plan and zoning before making an offer.

Waterfront, wetlands and creeks (watercourses) present some special issues.

To illustrate: the aerial photo shows a lot with 150 feet of frontage on the road and plenty of depth. It looks like there should be a lot of flexibility in terms of where to build on the property.

Vacant land zoning

A review of zoning for the property (above) on the Municipality’s Geographic Information System shows that much of the lot is zoned RU2, Rural 2, which allows a home to be built, as long as it’s setback 50 feet from the road and 15 feet from the side of the lot.

However, the part zoned EP-W is the fly in the ointment. The County’s new (2021) Official Plan prohibits development within 50 meters (164 feet) of the edge of an area zoned Environmentally Protected – Wetland.

Vacant land building site

When the setbacks from the EP-W zone and RU2 zoning are considered, the only place to build is in the area outlined in red.

Now comes the truly nasty surprise: a house with well and septic system cannot be built in the white area because it is too small, about one-third the size of a typical bungalow (even without considering the septic field.)

This has been a hypothetical situation, but if you think I’m being alarmist, you should know that twice in the last month I have reviewed similar lots for buyers, only to find that they were “un-buildable”.

The moral: before you make an offer on vacant land, much sure you know the zoning, the allowable uses, and the setbacks required from lot lines and environmentally protected areas.


    • On principle, yes a property can be re-zoned at a later date, in which case any uses which were permitted before the re-zoning would be grandfathered. You should also be aware that the boundaries Environmentally Protected (EP or EP-W) lands shown on the County’s zoning map may be only approximate. Quinte Conservation can provide more up to date and accurate information on the boundaries of EP zones connected with waterfront.

    • Development is prohibited on lands zoned Environmentally Protected (EP)but permitted uses include “sustainable resource management uses such as fish, hunting and wildlife observation, and facilities and structures which are accessory to these uses including board walks, duck blinds and fish hunts.”

  1. Very informative discussion here. Thank you.

    I’m curious to know if there are recent changes in Prince Edward County bylaws that limit the placement of new dwellings near an EP zone. To my knowledge, there are certain limits already established.

    • First, it’s important to be clear that there are two different authorities who can categorize land as Environmentally Protected. Quinte Conservation is the authority for environmentally protected areas arising because of proximity to water. On the other hand, the County has responsibility for lands designated as Environmentally Protected for other reasons (for example, escarpments).
      Policies regarding environmental protection are constantly evolving. For example, the new Official Plan approved by County Council in February 2021 has setbacks from EP areas which are larger than in the preceding plan. The new Official Plan allows limited development within the setbacks from environmentally protected lands if an Environmental Impact Study is carried out which gives a favourable result. The new Official Plan specifies in detail what has to be included in such an EIS.
      For lands fronting on the waters of Lake Ontario or the Bay of Quinte, development setbacks will be affected by the Shoreline Management Plan which is currently being prepared by Quinte Conservation.

  2. My situation is a bit different, even though I did my due diligence when purchasing my property, there was no evidence of any environmental restrictions or constraints, all indications showed no restrictions when I enquired with the municipality. Only years later when I was ready to build, the municipality suggested I contact the conservation authorities, so I did, and they had never done the mapping of my property, they created one a week later showing that 90% of the property now has constraints on it. How is this allowed?

    • As noted elsewhere, the boundaries of environmentally protected zones shown on the County’s zoning maps are approximate. The only way to confirm the extent of waterfront-based environmental restrictions is to contact Quinte Conservation. If there is the slightest question, Quinte Conservation should be contacted as part of due diligence on such a property.

  3. Hello. I have read through the above, and am curious if a designation “environmentally sensitive” is the same as ‘protected’? I am looking at a piece of land,47 acres through a wooded lot, with a stream and in the green belt, and am curious if ‘sensitive’ might mean that a yurt or non-permanent structure can still be built? This land is near Cobourg. Thanks for any info.

    • My expertise is limited to regulation in Prince Edward County and, as a result, I cannot safely comment on other parts of the province.

  4. I’m interested in a home in Ameliasburgh that is for sale but built on EP-W. The lot is entirely wetland zoned. Would this have been grandfathered in & are there risks to buying it besides needing a good sump pump & septic pump? What could go wrong?

    • If the home followed the rules which were in place at the time it was built, it will usually be grandfathered. Even if that is the case, there will likely be restrictions if any renovations are done now, with the size of the building limited to the existing footprint for example.
      There are different risks which you could run into which would be specific to the property. For example, if the wetland connects directly to Lake Ontario, flooding could be a risk.
      Even if the property is grandfathered, you may want to consider the future impact when the property is sold.
      Because the rules regarding environmental protection are complicated and changing, it is vital to confirm the status of a property with an environmental risk with Quinte Conservation and County planning.

  5. I purchased land several years back. Recently found out it was registered as wetland prior to my purchase. Would I have any recourse on this situation as I was never informed of the situation. Also have been paying taxes on residential lot that I cannot put a residence on.

    • It is unlikely that there was any duty to disclose on the seller’s part. It’s up to the buyer or their agent to investigate whether a property is a wetland. If there’s standing water on the property, it’s a pretty good giveaway that it’s classed wetland. Even if the whole property is not environmentally protected, even streams and seasonal watercourses are protected here in Prince Edward County and require a 15 meter setback for construction. Sometimes a surveyor will find that the actual wetland is smaller than the ‘official’ wetland, but sometimes they find it is larger too.

    • Historically driveways or farm access roads have been permitted across Environmentally Protected zones. However, you should contact Quinte Conservation who are are responsible for approvals who can advise you on their current practice.

  6. I’m thinking of buying a lot on methodist island Georgian bay it’s zoned ep2. Is it possible for the zoning to change? To put a trailer on it? If I have a engineer draw plans up.

    • I’d love to be able to help but in order to keep on top of issues, my practice is limited to Prince Edward County and adjacent communities.

  7. I just received land that’s environmentally protected.
    Is there any benefit to owning it and / or is there a good way to sell it ?

    • Environmentally Protected (EP) zoning covers different types of land including steep escarpments, wetlands, etc. In general, EP land fetches less per acre than other types of zones because development is prohibited. EP land is frequently listed on MLS and there are no special restrictions on its sale.

  8. If one were to buy an EP property, is it at all feasible to apply for an obtain a change in designation. For example, a small island designated as EP with no wetland in the Bay of Quinte. It is certainly possible to apply, but are the odds of a designation change more or less zero?

    • The designation of Environmentally Protected (EP) lands is governed by rules. Sometime the reality “on the ground” does not match the areas marked as EP on the zoning map on the County’s Geographic Information System on its website, it which case you can apply to have the property re-zoned to reflect the results of a modern survey. It can also work the other way too: I was involved with a case where the County’s zoning map showed land zoned EP because of seasonal flooding, but the reality was that the flooded area was larger than shown on the zoning map. The bottom line is that it’s possible to get property re-zoned from EP to something else, but only if you can prove factually that it does not meet the requirements for EP.

      You should also be aware that there are other constraints on where you can build when it comes to water. The County’s current official plan specifies that building has to be at least 15 meters from the 100-year flood line. However, once the 2021 version of the Official Plan is approved by the province, that setback will be increased to 30 meters for the shoreline of Lake Ontario and the Bay of Quinte. A small island is unlikely to have enough room to accommodate the setbacks.

  9. A 13 acre parcel of land is for sale near Huff’s Corners and designated EP-W, how do I find out if all of it is EP-W or just a portion of it?

    • Zoning for any parcel in the County can be determined using the County’s Geographic Information System (GIS). You can find the GIS here. There is also an instructional video on how to use the GIS on the Useful Tools page on this site.

  10. Can a trailer or moveable pre fab cabin be placed on an EP-W designated piece of land if there is no septic system?

    • The short answer is “no”.
      EP-W stands for Environmentally Protected – Provincially Significant Wetland. EP-W has even more stringent protections than EP (Environmentally Protected). No residential uses are permitted on EP-W and all construction has to be set back 30 meters from the edge of the area zoned EP-W. The sole exception in terms of building is that a boathouse or a dock is allowed with the approval of Quinte Conservation.
      From time to time, vacant land that is EP-W is listed on MLS. It may look like a great deal, but often the only legal use would be as a woodlot for firewood.
      Leaving aside the environmental protection issue, in the current interpretation of the planning department, an RV trailer cannot be used as a seasonal cottage, even if it’s only for weekends. (In practice, many trailers are used that way, but would have to cease if there were a complaint to by-law enforcement.)

  11. I’m curious: What are these lands (EP-W) good for, then?
    It seems that they do occasionally transact, but what are the buyers hoping to do with them?
    Do they expect to one day be able to build, far, far, in the future?

    • Thank you for your feedback.

      Of larger rural properties in the County, I would guess that two-thirds have some portion which is Environmentally Protected (EP).

      A number of different conditions are zoned EP with an associated setback within which development is prohibited. These include

      Watercourses (rivers, creeks, seasonal streams)

      There is also another zoning designation called EP-W or Environmentally Protected – Wetland. This zone applies to wetlands which have been designated by the province as environmentally significant.

      There are some parcels -not a lot- which are completely designated as EP or EP-W.

      Why would someone ever buy one of these properties where they can’t build? Many properties which are entirely environmentally protected are swamps which have a heavy tree cover – often swamp maple. People buy these properties to serve as a woodlot where they can harvest firewood during winter when the ice in the swamp lets them drive equipment in. Others buy them so they have a place to hunt or to protect nature and doing something for the environment.

      Obviously, such undevelopable properties sell for a low price!

  12. Very informative and interesting. I am considering a purchase of EP – W land.
    Now I need to figure out if and where I can build a home?

    • Thank you for your comment. Care should be exercised if you are purchasing property which contains an area designated EP-W. No development is permitted on the portion designated EP-W nor within 30 meter of the border. The borders of wetlands shown on the County’s Geographic Information System are approximate. In order to avoid a bad surprise -buying a property and then discovering you can’t build where intended- Quinte Conservation, Planning & Regulations Department should be contacted to survey and mark the boundaries of the EP zone and identify where you can build (for a fee, of course). It would also be wise to have a look at the treatment of EP zones included in the new draft of the Official Plan.

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