Councils. LEPs. DCPs. Floor-space ratios. Setbacks. Shadow diagrams. Blah. Renovation dreams easily become a dull, painful headache once they are submitted to council for approval. Arguments with neighbours and debates with council planners can dampen that initial enthusiasm for a new family room or attic conversion, especially in Sydney where stories of councils taking more than a year to approve plans are not uncommon.
Roger van den Hoek spent two years negotiating with the then South Sydney Council to add a second storey to his Redfern cottage. If he had to renovate again, he would prefer to battle it out in the Land and Environment Court – the arbiter of planning decisions in NSW.
“At least the court gives you a definite yes or no answer. The council just keeps changing its mind,” van den Hoek claims. “We thought negotiating was the right thing to do, but every time we had a meeting with council, the goal-posts would move – one minute the rooflines would be an issue, the next it was heritage and once it was about how much lawn I had in the backyard. Eventually we got what we wanted, but it was a long and expensive process.”
Van den Hoek says he spent $10,000 on a planning consultant and an architect to alter plans during the negotiation process.
Bondi resident Robert Molnar was warned it would cost him at least $20,000 to take his development application to the Land and Environment Court, but it didn’t. “The people that warn you how expensive the Land and Environment Court is have a vested interest in stopping you,” he says.
“We had no problems going to court. I represented myself and found them helpful – I got an approval within three months and spent less than $3000 to get a $200,000 renovation approved. It was a lot easier than dealing with the council that had taken 18 months to give me a refusal.”
Buoyed by his initial success with the court, Molnar took an application to build a swimming pool to the Land and Environment Court earlier this year after Waverley Council failed to approve the development within 40 days.
“I had been told by the council it would take at least six months to get an answer on the swimming pool. Within 10 days of lodging the notice [in the court] I had an approval from the council,” he says.
Despite the NSW Government demand that councils approve developments within 40 days, there seems little evidence that this occurs regularly. The president of the Local Government and Shires Association of NSW, Genia McCaffery, says 40 days is an unworkable time to approve developments.
“I don’t know how you maintain diversity in built-up areas in Sydney without having a planning system that is complicated,” she says. “The 40 days is just not long enough for councils to consider everything.”
Architect and Land and Environment Court consultant Jennifer Hill warns people against taking their renovation plans to the court if the councils take too long to decide the matter. “The court can award costs against you and that makes it very expensive,” she says.
Hill understands the frustrations of dealing with councils and blames a shortage of qualified planning staff and confusing planning codes for the problem.
A spokeswoman for the NSW Department of Planning says the Government is trying to improve the approval processes by insisting on plain-English development controls, but this process is expected to take five years. Hope you’re not in a hurry.