Early in the proceedings we should have guessed we were in for an extraordinary item at this meeting when the General Manager of Greenfields Development Company, Mr Mick Owens, spoke in opposition to ORD 02, the subdivision of a lot at 42 Bourne Ridge, Oran Park. You can read his full address here (minus one sentence he asked to be redacted).
The backstory to this opposition is quite interesting.
Under the State Environmental Planning Policies (SEPP) for the South-west Growth Area, nearly any block larger than 500sqm could be divided into two blocks. This has, not surprisingly, led to a rush to subdivide right across the Growth Area, not just by individuals but also small developers in an effort to make a quick buck. We have seen subdivisions of very small lots regularly come before the Council and be allowed through because they fit with the SEPP for the growth areas.
The covenant by Greenfields Development Company aimed to address this growing planning issue and keep control of their vision for the Oran Park community.
Similarly, the ALP councillors and independent Cr Eva Campbell have been vocal in their opposition to these subdivisions and in mid-2017 Cr Paul Farrow called for a broader policy discussion around these blocks and asked for the Council to consider a submission to the State Government.
Until this point their Liberal colleagues along with Cr Rob Mills had waived the great majority of these subdivisions through. The Liberals consistently made the argument that if they declined these subdivisions and the owners of the land went to the Land and Environment Court, the Council would inevitably lose the case costing ratepayers money.
Another argument put forward, primarily by Cr Michael Morrison, was the importance of creating affordable opportunities for first homeowners to get into the market.
Both arguments have merit although the second argument did not feature at all in this debate.
Camden Council officers had recommended accepting the subdivision because it complied with the planning criteria. It is important to remember in this context that Council officers have very little leeway to recommend a refusal if a development application complies with the planning controls.
However, Cr Paul Farrow immediately put forward an alternate recommendation that the subdivision be refused because it undermined the Oran Park Town Sales Plan; contravened a deed of covenant which the developer had entered into with the purchasers of the land; and claimed the proposed subdivision would undermine the planning process and affect adjoining landowners.
He thanked Mr Owens for his public address and congratulated Greenfields Development Company for taking steps against what he considered had been a growing problem for a number of years. He said the Council would like to see more approaches of this nature and encouraged other developers to follow suit.
Cr Farrow said that the current State legislation in the growth areas was not helpful but the developer had made every effort to be transparent with landowners. "I think the Council should say, if you (the developer) are going to be clear with the residents then we have got your back," Cr Farrow said.
Cr Peter Sidgreaves said while he agreed with Cr Farrow on nearly every point and also congratulated Greenfields Development Company for its hard work ("I absolutely give them credit for that") he said he could not support declining the subdivision because none of the reasons provided by Cr Farrow were "planning reasons".
Cr Cindy Cagney supported declining the subdivision saying that the developer had already set aside 3 out of 10 blocks for subdivision, which she felt showed that the Oran Park guidelines were working alongside the State Government guidelines. "I think there are times we just have to bite the bullet," she said. "The (Greenfield Development Commpany) planning process works for the community and those around them."
She also noted the owner of the land before them had the opportunity to buy one of the plots that could have been subdivided and that it was important for covenants to be recognised and maintained.
Cr Eva Campbell asked about the legal position if the Council declined the subdivision.
A Council officer said covenants are disregarded under the planning controls for the Growth Centres. For this reason she felt it was unlikely the contract of sale would be considered in the Court’s decision.
Cr Campbell then asked if there had been any indication whether the developers would be prepared to help pay to defend action against the Council if this DA was declined.
The Council officer said no such indication had been given.
Cr Campbell said she would consider this in her decision.
Cr Michael Morrison asked how many residents were notified and how many put in a submission opposing the subdivision.
A Council officer said 10 residents had been notified and only one had opposed the subdivision. That person had since withdrawn their opposition.
Cr Farrow in his right of reply described how subdivisions on small blocks of land were becoming alarming. He felt the fact that a developer was now opposing such a subdivision was significant, especially as Greenfields Development Company had been very clear on their sales contracts of the expectations for this land. He noted the rush on subdivisions was not something that had been planned for and he felt the State Environmental Planning Policies did not originally intended to create rampant subdivisions on small blocks. He felt it was time for the Council to send a clear message that if developers were going to take steps then the Council was going to back them. "It sends a message to landowners that is very different to the current message, which is buyer beware," he said.
The amendment then went to the vote and in a remarkable outcome, especially considering the mayor had not spoken throughout this debate, Cr Lara Symkowiak sided with the ALP councillors and Cr Eva Campbell to refuse the subdivision.
That unexpected vote is definitely worthy of note as this is the second time since the first meeting of the new Council after the September 2016 election that the Liberals haven't voted as a bloc. Since the election and throughout 2017, they voted as a single unit almost every single time.
It will be interesting to see where this particular subdivision goes from here.
I am quietly hopeful this may be the first step in approaching the State Government about these subdivisions through an official submission but it is equally possible that this may be a one-off event. It will be interesting to see what the year brings on this front.