More than a semicolon

More than a semicolon Re If You Think Punctuation Doesn't Matter, Talk to This Guy: In the February 26 issue of the Yukon News, Vivian Belik starts her article, "If you think punctuation doesn't matter, talk to this guy," with the sentence, "A years-long

Re If You Think Punctuation Doesn’t Matter, Talk to This Guy:

In the February 26 issue of the Yukon News, Vivian Belik starts her article, “If you think punctuation doesn’t matter, talk to this guy,” with the sentence, “A years-long battle between Pelly Road residents and Love to Learn Daycare began with a simple semi-colon.”

Belik indicates that the semicolon was important because the Municipal Board, sitting as a Board of Variance, decided in 1987 that the expression, “designed to accommodate a maximum of ten persons,” found in Bylaw 491 limited only one nonresidential use in residential areas of the four nonresidential uses permitted by this bylaw passed by Whitehorse city council in 1981. This bylaw set out four non-residential uses in a residential area, private schools, daycare centres, childcare centres, and group homes in the following language: “private schools; daycare centres; child care centres; and group homes designed to accommodate a maximum of 10 persons.”

Courts and other adjudicative bodies normally start with considering the plain meaning of the text in interpreting it. In doing so, in this case, the board therefore concluded that if the drafter had wanted the limiting phrase following “group homes” to apply to all of the uses, the drafter would not have used a semicolon between them.

This is reasonable as far as it goes but the board did not need to rely on the semicolons. The plain meaning of the text of the bylaw stays the same even if the semicolons are changed to commas. There is no suggestion in the following excerpt, “The following nonresidential uses are permitted in a residential area: private schools, daycare centres, child care centres, and group homes designed to accommodate a maximum of 10 persons,” that the phrase limiting the size of a group home applies to any of the other permitted uses.

Recasting the form of the bylaw as follows drives home the point:

“The following nonresidential uses are permitted in a residential area:

(a) private schools,

(b) daycare centres,

(c) childcare centres, and

(d) group homes designed to accommodate a maximum of 10 persons”

In short, the board did not need the semicolons to come to its conclusion.

The drafter could have worded the bylaw to limit each use to a maximum of 10 persons as follows:

“The following nonresidential uses are permitted in a residential area provided that they do not accommodate more than 10 persons:

(a) private schools,

(b) daycare centres,

(c) childcare centres, and

(d) group homes”

But this is a very differently worded bylaw from Bylaw 491. It would also stop most persons from operating a daycare centre or private school in a residential area as these entities may not be economically viable with an enrolment limited to 10 persons.

Belik also does not mention that both daycare centres and family day-home programs are also highly regulated by the Yukon government. While both these programs are required to comply with applicable zoning regulations, the city would have to be mindful of the fact that a daycare may accommodate up to 64 persons provided that it complies with the applicable territorial regulations.

In short, there may be more to this story than first meets the eye, and the “simple semi-colon” may be only part of it.

Steven A. Horn

barrister and solicitor

Whitehorse