Re-claiming power

Latrobe City councillors hope new planning regulations will help strip property developers of their power to build high-density dwellings in quiet residential areas.

The frustrated decision-makers were this week given some reprieve with the State Government changes, which will allow local councils to designate residential areas they want protected from over-development, and those more suitable for units and townhouses.

It came after years of fruitless objection in which council voted down developments it deemed inappropriate for certain streets, only for the matters to be appealed and ultimately approved by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

In the last financial year alone, VCAT approved four Latrobe Valley developments previously refused by council which included multiple dwellings on single lots.

Each time a developer appeals a decision to VCAT, council is forced to spend up to $15,000 of ratepayer money, depending on the level of legal representation.

Since first elected to council in 1997, Cr Graeme Middlemiss has become increasingly frustrated with the cycle he said had been ‘ongoing’ since amalgamation.

He cited the recent VCAT approval of a 16-unit, two-storey development in the bowl of Traralgon’s McClure Court against the view of council and neighbouring residents, as a “typical example of what has been a major issue for so long”.

The changes announced by State Planning Minister Matthew Guy on Monday came too late for McClure Court residents, but, according to the minister will “utterly prevent” similar developments from occurring again.

New zone overlays will be introduced in the coming months including a ‘Residential Growth Zone’, ‘General Residential Zone’ and ‘Neighbourhood Residential Zone’.

According to Mr Guy, the latter zone will have an eight-metre mandatory height limit and councils will be able to decide how far a block can be subdivided.

He said the controls put in place for neighbourhood residential zones would make the law “very clear” and therefore prevent developers from appealing council refusals to VCAT.

Mr Guy said under the changes, in a ‘general residential zone’ which would be subject to a broader range of development than the neighbourhood zone, “neighbourhood character” must be considered.

And he said planning guidelines geared towards metropolitan areas, such as the ‘Melbourne 2030’ document could no longer be applied to regional Victoria, as was the case in the McClure Court development.

“The community will know very clearly that certain areas will be subject to change and certain areas will not.

“What people have missed is absolute clarity. These zoning reforms will go a long way to giving that.”

However, Cr Middlemiss said he did not believe the changes went far enough to address multiple unit developments in family housing estates and appeared to favour developers.

“In the new General Housing zone it appears that blocks as small as 300 square metres can be permitted. This is just units in disguise,” Cr Middlemiss said.

“The new Neighbourhood Residential zone appears to give a developer the automatic right to place two units on a housing block.”

Cr Middlemiss said he feared the new zones would not prevent VCAT from interpreting existing planning policies and regulations to support the approval of multiple unit developments.

Cr Kellie O’Callaghan, who unsuccessfully called for Mr Guy to intervene and nullify VCAT’s ruling on McClure Court, said the community needed assurance of protection from over-development and she hoped the changes would shift planning power from developers to local councils.

Latrobe City Mayor Sandy Kam said the revised zones would allow better management of development and clarity for home-buyers and developers would encourage growth within the region.

Traralgon-based developer Brett Neilsen said the previous planning guidelines weren’t clear enough to developers and the community.

“Effectively it’s up to the developer’s discretion,” Mr Neilson said.

“If new guidelines are put in place, everybody knows what can and can’t take place.”

Council will have 12 months to consider how it will apply the changes locally and incorporate them into its review of the planning scheme.