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Setback Guidelines


What is it?

A Setback is the prescribed minimum distance required between a land use activity (e.g., residential buildings), and a natural feature (e.g., a wetland). The setback’s intent is to keep land use activities that could negatively impact a natural feature an appropriate distance away. This helps to reduce or minimize pollution, degradation, or damage.

Setback Guidelines recommend or prescribe the methodology to be used in determining setback distances, which can then be applied on a case-by-case basis.

(What is the difference between a Buffer and a Setback?)

How can municipalities use it?

Setback Guidelines can be incorporated at several places in the municipal policy and planning process. The Municipal Development Plan can prescribe specific Setback Guidelines for ecological purposes, direct that other plans must develop such setbacks, or provide guidance for use in other bylaws (e.g., environmental reserve bylaws) or Area Structure Plans. Biodiversity-related plans, strategies, and action plans can independently prescribe these Setback Guidelines based on ecological principles. This Setback guidance can be coordinated to maintain an intact and connected natural infrastructure network across the municipality. The bases for Setback Guidelines can also be found outside of the municipality. Regulatory setbacks may be found in provincial legislation.

What are the advantages?

The advantages of setbacks include:

  • Reduces or minimizes impact to the natural infrastructure system

  • Determined on a site-specific basis

  • Guides municipal staff on development approval

  • Provides defensible metrics

What should you watch out for?

No tool is a silver bullet. The following should be considered before installing a setback:

  • Setbacks should address relevant legislative requirements in provincial  (e.g., Municipal Government Act, Public Lands Act, Water Act) and the federal (e.g., Navigable Waters Act) legislation

  • Detailed data (e.g., mapping, shoreline stability, biodiversity) may be required in order to determine defensible setback distances

  • Setbacks do not necessarily protect the area between the land use and natural feature

  • Setbacks are the minimum requirements needed, and may not always provide the best protection, yet may come to be interpreted as ‘maximums’ in development decisions

  • Because the Land Use Bylaw uses ‘Setbacks’ to refer to distance from property lines, it can be challenging (and confusing) to incorporate Setback Guidelines into land use district requirements

How can it help maintain natural infrastructure?

Setback Guidelines help to maintain the natural infrastructure system by guiding municipal staff to ensure proper distances are implemented between sources of pollution or other impact, and an important natural feature. These Guidelines can add a quantifiable measure to otherwise vague ecological descriptions, can be inserted directly into a variety of plans, policies, and strategies, and can be designed with reference to specific natural features of concern to the municipality.


Stepping Back from the Water – A handbook prepared by the Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development to guide decisions that minimize the impact of new development on water bodies in Alberta’s settled region.

Planning to Connect: A Guide to Incorporating Ecological Connectivity into Municipal Planning – Developed by the Miistakis Institute, Planning to Connect provides a guide that is intended to provide support to municipal planners and others who are affected by municipal plans. The guide provides example clauses and document library of cases.

M.D. Foothills Riparian Setback –Foothills County’s Municipal Development Plan includes riparian setback requirements. A Riparian Setback Matrix Model and Developers Guidelines helps determine and guide the appropriate riparian setbacks in the municipality.

The City of Calgary Environmental Reserve (ER) Setback – Calgary developed an ER Setback policy in 2007 to provide guidelines on riparian-associated ER requirements for future developments.

Green Bylaws Toolkit: for conserving sensitive ecosystems and green infrastructure – This document is an important resource for understanding how municipalities and developers can safeguard the environment, from a regional to a site level. It clearly explains each tool, and provides case studies and examples of bylaws that are in use in British Columbia. This document describes the use of riparian setbacks.

Battle River Watershed Alliance Drought Adaptation and Management: Implementation Guidelines - This document outlines the BRWA’s implementation guidelines for drought adaptation and management in the Battle River and Sounding Creek watersheds in Alberta. Drought adaptation and management is one component of the BRWA’s watershed management planning process. Part of their prescribed guidelines is an assessment of setback and buffer zones for wetlands and riparian areas. 

Did we miss something?

If you know of a resource that should be on this list - or your municipality has a sample or case that should be here, please let us know!

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