Planning Approval – what a mess

OMG, a couple of months after submission, we get a letter saying that the house will never be approved in the current location. The letter contains lots of factual errors, and a few odd details, but essentially says our driveway is too long. At the preplanning they raised this but said a secondary escape path would address all their concerns,. We included it in the application, updating all our documents to show it – several thousand dollars down the drain. That now apparently isn’t sufficient.

It hasn’t been referred to the CFA, the responsible authority for determining bushfire risk, despite the fact that they have to do this legally. They’ve just unilaterally decided that the risk is too high.

No consideration for environmental damage or loss of habitat. No consideration for the fact that this is the lowest fire risk site on the block. They would like us to build on the road at the front of the block right in the tallest eucalyptus trees, where the fire risk is greatest.

We insisted on referral to CFA, who wanted confirmation that there were no other degraded sites of low conservation value on the property. Once we provided an additional environmental report to them, they approved the development.

Council did not agree, despite having no expertise. Numerous meetings where we and our experts explained the regulations to them, and they wouldn’t budge. CFA were brilliant – they tried to educate them too, all to no avail. All advice to council is that its the safest location for the house – best defendable space (50% water with the dam), low risk vegetation surrounding it, with minimum environmental damage.

We went down a rabbit hole for awhile where they said maybe the secondary escape path would be OK if our neighbours would put a covenant on their property to allow up a permanent escape path. Our neighbours were brilliant – wrote letters to council, said we could put a gate in the fence etc etc, but council insisted on a covenant. Neighbours told us that they would do it, but only if we took the council to court (VCAT) first and lost. More than we could have asked for (Thanks Tim) – almost impossible that we would lose, but with COVID, VCATs backed up and it will take months if not a year….

We complained to the director of planning 2 months after they refused to accept CFA determination, when all logic had failed. More time lost while they reviewed their position. Secondary escape dropped, but new set of issues. Geotechnical survey required since house site had been previously cleared to explore for gravel. Third environment survey required to determine how much vegetation needs to be removed to widen the existing driveway to meet CFA requirements, with instruction to buy offsets. Consolidate two titles – we have a 100 acre title and a 5 acre title.

We’re allowed to maintain an existing driveway, and it was originally wide enough, but at this point we’ll do anything. Ironic that we need to buy offsets when this is all about minimising habitat loss. Conservation report confirms minimum possible vegetation destruction with very small loss. Offsets will cost around $2.5k, mostly because we had to remove a couple of trees that we had planted to line the driveway. Sigh. Easy process, with Vegetation Link, just more cost. Conservation report cost more that offsets.

Geotech report – all good. More cost – any cursory visit to the site would have confirmed this. One planner came once, and agreed it was the only logical place to build the house.

So, all good – right? No. Silence from the council. Then we hear on the grapevine that the planning manager and planning director have been removed/left/sacked.

Finally, temporary director appointed from outside council. She’s brilliant, says that are lots of people in a ridiculous planning disputes as well, and gets its sorted. She makes the planners make a decision.

We get an email saying that we will be getting planning permission, provided we build a BAL 40 house. WTF????? This has never been mentioned before, we’re already building BAL 29 in a 12.5 clearing – two levels higher than we need to. A BAL 40 would require house redesign – forget the skylights, the rotating louvres on the patio, lose an amazing amount of sunlight in the house. Lots of folk say BAL 40 houses are really unpleasant to live in for a whole range of reasons.

Our bushfire management consultant goes crazy – writes a detailed technical assessment of why this is a ridiculous requirement, and that the house will never burn given its location, type of bush and existing protections – by our choice of materials and simple design, we’re already half way to BAL 40 – we just haven’t done the light compromising things. Fundamentally, if you’re going to require BAL40, then why are you approving the house? A late night conversation, and we reiterate an offer we made almost a year earlier – we’ll build a bushfire bunker, noting that the CFA said we shouldn’t. Another $20k, but if it gets us over the line….

We get the conditional approval. Celebrations all round.

We have to buy the offsets, consolidate titles, update all the documentation to reflect a bushfire shelter and install a chain link fence or equivalent around the site to be cleared to make sure we don’t clear too much amongst a few other bits and pieces.

We can’t install a chain link fence without clearing. Catch 22. We’re advised by others to ignore it and just mark it off, so we spend a hard week bush bashing – the regrowth is very dense wallaby grass, ti tree and other bits and pieces – putting in star pickets and marking it with high visibility tape.

We consolidate the two titles – conveyancer, surveyor taxes and fees cost around $10k to remove a really valuable asset. And of course it cost us money to buy it in the first place. A very small house on 5 acres across the road just sold for $2M. This was our retirement contingency plan – we never wanted to sell it, but if we ran out of money….

Our brilliant bushfire management consultant updates the management plan again – she’s done more revisions for us that she has ever done for anyone before. Pay the surveyor to revise the site plan, get the builders to update their plans…

All the documents submitted to council – so we’re home and hosed.

Wrong. Nothing happens. Our brilliant temporary planning director has moved on to her permanent role and things go back to normal. No response, even though all conditions met.

Suddenly it seems that the CFA opinion is vital – the management plan has been re-submitted to them, and we need to wait for their response. Council have ignored them for eight months, and we have approval from them for the pre bushfire shelter development. So why do we need to wait for them to sign it off with the bushfire shelter? Although, we’re a bit nervous that they won’t like it. Council not doing anything to hurry it along.

New planning director says the right things, but doesn’t seem to do anything… Doesn’t even know after reviewing our case that we have CFA approval – we have to send it to her.

A really nasty note to the administrators (elected councillors were removed several years ago), and they at least start asking the CFA for a response, but won’t make the decision, even though it is within their authority (as they repeatedly told us while they were ignoring the CFA). We chase CFA ourselves, and they issue their approval!

Finally, finally, finally WE HAVE PLANNING.

Only took us over a year, cost us over $100k in consultant fees and rent, cost us our retirement contingency plan and caused us a huge amount of angst and stress.

Hopefully this will be the last vent like this I’ll have during the build….

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