So your neighbours are planning to renovate or build. Or subdivide their block of land.
Perhaps you get a quiet invitation for a drink and their plans (as subtle as a sledge-hammer) are on their dining table.
Or you get a knock on the door one Sunday. They’re trying to play it cool … it’s really not a big deal … they’re just planning a little bit of work at their place. Can they have a quick chat?
Or you don’t even get told – you simply get a letter from Council in your letterbox to advise that there’s a Development Application available for viewing.
Next thing you know, you’re worrying about how it will affect your home. Will you lose sunlight, views or privacy? Or all three?
Navigating a neighbour’s plans for renovating or building or subdividing can be a tricky minefield. Whether you’re on good terms or not, it can be a stressful time of protecting your property whilst being on a deadline to ‘have your say’ particularly if you’re objecting a development application.
Don’t shoot the messenger
Councils are generally focused on protecting the amenity of all residents in their shire. Amenity for residents, in their homes, includes a right to sunlight (especially in winter), security, and protection of views and privacy from overlooking.
Councils also however, are charged with managing the continued growth and prosperity of their shire – which can mean supporting those residents who invest in updating their homes.
The Planning Officer in charge of the application is not your enemy. They are doing their job. They are regular human having to make decisions on behalf of the Council, and all who live in its shire. It’s important you remember this before you jump on the phone to yell at them “I live next door and they can’t do that to their property!” when you’re objecting a development application.
In my experience, you will get A LOT further if you actually help them do their job. They are usually interested in your position, if it is valid. A “not-in-my-backyard” attitude isn’t helpful. An “I love this area, and think I understand the rules, however I’d like to know whether this application is in keeping with development for our suburb” may get better traction.
Ultimately, if you’ve lived in your area for some time, you’ll have an intimate understanding of how the sun moves, of how the land can handle large storms and water overland flow, and important vegetation and safety traffic flows.
This information may actually help the Planning Office make a more informed assessment of the application. Be a helpful squeaky wheel, not a thorn in their side when you’re objecting a development application. If you were constantly being contacted by the annoying, screaming neighbour-from-hell, you’d ignore the phonecalls too!
Find out the timeline
If you’ve received a letter in the mailbox about a neighbour’s plans, or your neighbour has told you themselves that they’ve lodged a Development Application, figure out the timeline.
There will be a set date and deadline that Council sets for you to review the application and submit any objections you may have.
The application will usually be available for viewing publicly online.
Don’t delay, because some councils will observe those dates very strictly, and you may miss your chance if you don’t adhere to the dates. If you want to have a say that actually gets heard, do it in the required timeframes.
Get professional help
Assessing your neighbour’s development application will involve reading drawings, and planning reports using specific terminology.
If you don’t feel confident in understanding either of those things, or in developing a good strategy to combat your neighbour’s application, get professional help.
One professional who can assist with navigating the ins and outs of a Development Application is a Town Planner familiar with your area. They will know the intricate detail of the Council’s town plan, and be able to assist you with understanding where Gerry’s application does or doesn’t meet the rules – and help you mount an argument if it doesn’t.
Another professional is an architect. Their ability to read drawings, and visualise what it will look like as a finished project – and its impact on your home as a finished project – can be incredibly helpful in explaining things to you. They will also understand the terminology and planning reports, and be able to quickly assess a strategic approach on your part.
If you can’t read drawings, get help. If a town planning report sounds like Latin, get help. If you’re busy and won’t make the deadlines on your own steam, get help. A chat with a professional can help demystify it and give you the ammunition you need to get a better outcome overall.
[A side note … I heard once of a homeowner using a lawyer to assist with this process. Unless the lawyer is very good at reading drawings, and has knowledge of the local town plan, I do not believe they will be a useful resource for you in this scenario.]
Review the application
The applications – whether it’s for a renovation, extension, new build or subdivision – will generally include drawn and written information.
The drawings will of course show the proposed project. For most councils, Development Applications also need to include a planning report of some sort – a Statement of Environment Effects or something similar.
This written report explains the detail of the proposed project and how it relates to the local town plan, or council rules, for your area and the site.
If the site and project has special conditions, there may be other reports. These can include things like heritage reports, bushfire reports or hydraulic reports.
The drawings will include information about the proposed work. Depending on your council, drawings for renovation or new building work may also include shadow diagrams. These plans should show the existing shadows cast over neighbouring properties, and how these shadows will change based on proposed work.
Dates used for these shadow diagrams are usually the solstices and equinoxes. At a bare minimum, it will be the winter solstice, at 10am, 12pm and 3pm. This shows the sun’s movement on the shortest day of the year – which is basically the worst-case scenario for sunlight!
If you don’t believe there’s sufficient information in the application for you to understand what’s proposed … OR … you don’t believe the information being presented is actually correct, let the Planning Officer know. Chances are they are way ahead of you, and will be making similar requests of the applicant.
Playing by the rules or not?
If a project is being submitted for Development Approval, it is being measured against the local town planning rules of its council.
When a project is proposed for site, the owner of that site (your neighbour) and their chosen professional/s, will examine the relevant rules for the site and intended work.
Let’s call your neighbour “Gerry”.
Gerry and his team will create the proposal knowing whether or not it’s meeting the relevant Council rules. Whether Gerry creates a design that adheres to all of these rules will be Gerry’s decision – based on how much risk Gerry wants to take on in achieving an approval for the project.
When Gerry lodges his application for Development Approval, his team will then use the application to argue the case for why Council should approve it.
When you review Gerry’s written information included in the Development Approval – especially the planning report or Statement of Environmental Effects – this is where those relevant rules will be outlined. The application will also outline how the proposal responds to those rules.
So, if you read through this report, you can actually see whether the proposal meets the rules or not. Where it doesn’t meet the rules, it will generally have a statement about why it should still be approved.
For example, the maximum FSR or “Floor-Site-Ratio” for the site may be 0.5. This means that the floor area of the project cannot exceed an area equal to 50% of the site area.
Gerry’s proposed project may have an FSR of 0.56. So the application will usually say it is not meeting the FSR requirements, but will then argue why it should still be approved. It may say that the extra area is not compromising neighbour’s amenity, or is in keeping with the development of the area etc. There will be some form of justification for why breaking this rule is ok, and the proposal should still be approved.
Whether it meets all the rules or not generally determines your next course of action – so figure this out first by reviewing the Gerry’s application.
Course of Action 1: It meets all the rules
If Gerry’s application meets all the Council rules, then usually its chances of being approved are pretty high.
Where you can have some impact on the outcome is in demonstrating if it compromises your amenity – sunlight, views and privacy.
You can also make objections on the basis of construction and its impact on your home, or local services. You may believe construction of their project will be detrimental to your home, or to water run off, or a shared sewer line, etc.
If you frame your objection on these grounds, Council can assess the Development Application with this information, and may impose particular conditions on Gerry to help manage this for your home during construction and beyond.
There may be other avenues for you to object, or to change the nature of the approval, so it’s still worth getting informed about what is proposed.
Course of Action 2: It doesn’t meet all the rules
This is where you have the greatest scope for your objection.
If you find that the application is not meeting Council rules for its site and your area, you can object quite simply on that basis.
The application will have a justification for why it is not complying with the local rules. You can argue against these justifications, and why they are not in keeping with the intent of the town plan for the area.
One example of this is an experience I had with a property in Mosman, Sydney. The owner contacted me because their neighbour was planning to extend and renovate their home – and these properties were two ‘semis’ – so they shared a party wall.
The application’s Statement of Environmental Effects outlined where the proposal wasn’t meeting Council rules. It was mainly in floor area – however, the minimum rear setback was also being exceeded.
There was also a lot of space being built into attic area that was not included in the floor area (which was permissible based on definitions). However, dormer windows were being put up there too, which would make the space more than just storage … meaning the usable floor area was bigger again.
There were some existing issues with water runoff between the properties, as a gutter on their neighbour wasn’t end-capped, and would spew water into their courtyard during storms. This needed to be dealt with in any new work.
And because they shared a party wall, these owners were very interested in the fact that their neighbour’s application showed the removal of a shared chimney, and some new roofing etc that was going to impact the party wall as well.
I helped them lodged a letter outlining the areas of non-compliance and general concern, and why these would be detrimental to their home – on the basis of views, natural light and privacy. We also requested that due diligence be observed during construction to ensure their home was not impacted by any building work and additional structure being added to their neighbour’s home.
They followed that letter with a call to the Planning Officer, speaking calmly and with kindness, and offering assistance if he required it. They also said they would welcome a visit to their home from him, so he could view the situation in person.
The Planning Officer attended their property. He agreed with their objections, and the application was revised considerably to meet Council rules, and respond to these objections.
It’s not the end of the world
It can be hard to accept change – especially when you’ve come to love the existing qualities of where you live.
A neighbour deciding they’ll subdivide their big block into 5 smaller blocks of land can and will have a big impact on how your neighbourhood and home feels.
However, it can also bode very well for your property. If neighbours are investing in changing and modernising their properties, it can continue to drive values up in your area. If your home is on a large block, and all the blocks around you are getting smaller and smaller, your land will often become more valuable.
However, I’m not suggesting you just resign yourself to these changes. Accept that change may happen, but get involved so you can have a voice in these changes. You can have a say in preserving the amenity of your home, and area, and achieve good outcomes overall.
But I never saw it coming
Sometimes a neighbour will extend or renovate, or build a new home, and their plans never even make it to council. You may not even get the opportunity to object.
In most cases, this is not your neighbour doing a dodgy deal, or getting an ‘under-the-table’ approval.
In most cases, it is because your Council and State Planning legislation permits certain types of development as “Exempt or Complying Development”. This means it can skip the Development Approval process altogether and go straight to Building Approval. And you don’t get a say at all.
If this is happening in your area, and you’re really concerned, you have two options. Campaign your local government to change the local planning rules and regulations as to what is considered “Exempt and Complying Development”. Or move.
If your neighbour has asked you to sign a variation of some sort, get informed before you agree to it. Follow the same process of getting advice if required, and understanding their project in detail before you ok that reduced boundary setback or minor non-compliance they’re asking you to support.
And if you do see an extension suddenly appear next door, it can be worthwhile checking whether your neighbour was supposed to get approval and didn’t. There is a course of action available to councils where residents are constructing unapproved work, that can include orders to demolish, or retrospective approvals.
If you’ve found this helpful, or know someone who will, please share!
Further reading is this blog by HCC Planning. I often hear from homeowners in disbelief that an apartment building is being lodged for Development Approval next to or near their home. Changes to zoning (especially ones that increase density in an area) do not happen overnight, or without formal community consultation. So “buyer beware” if you’re purchasing a home … and get involved if you Council notifies you about intended changes to your area’s local plan.
Undercover Architect does not provide a service of assisting with Development Application objections or reviews. Please contact a local Town Planning Consultant, a local Architect or your local Council for more assistance with your neighbour’s Development Application.