Building materials covenants still have work to do in Victoria

In Gardencity Altona v Grech [2015] VSC 538 Associate Justice Lansdowne refused an application to remove a covenant requiring the main walls of any dwelling or shop on the land to be of brick and/or stone, on the basis that it could not be said that the covenant was obsolete, or that it’s removal would not occasion substantial injury to those with the benefit of the covenant.

No single dwelling covenant attached to the land, and so arguably, only the building materials covenant prevented the applicant from realising his development plans for the land.

Instrumental to her Honour’s reasoning was that the defendants had a genuine preference for the use of brick as a building material.

Her Honour also left open the possibility that if it were shown that removal of the brick or stone restriction would make a taller building less likely that may be a further benefit conferred by the restriction and so further reason why the restriction is not obsolete.

Significantly, the application was made in a neighbourhood found to be predominantly constructed with brick or stone:

142 I find on the whole of the evidence that the buildings in the neighbourhood predominantly have their main walls constructed in brick or stone. As indicated, I refer in this finding to the actual incidence of the use of brick or stone, rendered or exposed, not the visual incidence of exposed brick. By ‘predominantly’ I mean well more than half, and on a broad estimate at least two thirds.

This feature of the case will require close scrutiny for parties wishing to rely on the decision as a precedent.

Of particular interest is that the Court declined to apply the 1956 decision of Jacobs v Greig [1956] VLR 597, often cited as authority for the proposition that a requirement to build out of brick requires ‘double brick’ construction rather than brick veneer:

134 Having regard to Mr McLaughlin’s expert evidence that brick veneer is now an acceptable use of brick in construction, I consider the particular outcome in Jacobs v Greig to be limited to its particular facts and time. On the principle identified in that case, I find that an ordinary resident of Victoria would consider the covenants here in question do not now exclude brick veneer. Accordingly, I find that for this case at least, brick veneer is ‘brick’ for the purposes of the covenants, and like covenants in the area.

This is a welcome development given that double brick is now rarely used in Victoria for reasons of cost and energy efficiency.

Matthew Townsend
Owen Dixon Chambers
http://www.vicbar.com.au/profile?3183
townsend@vicbar.com.au (04) 1122 0277
Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation

The importance of choosing the right planner in a covenant modification application

Once again, we’ve seen the importance of choosing an appropriately experienced town planner when applying to the Supreme Court for the modification of a restrictive covenant.

In Re: Morrison, the Plaintiff selected a town planner that hadn’t been involved in a contested covenant case before and the report in support of the application read like a report for a permit application under the Planning and Environment Act 1987.

In handing down his judgement, Associate Justice Derham dismissed this approach: “Looking at the expert reports, it is clear that Mr Chapman had a primary focus on planning considerations, considering his emphasis on restrictive covenants generally being an out-moded form of controlling development that had been largely rendered redundant by the introduction of planning schemes.”

In other words, the planner was downplaying or dismissing the need for restrictive covenants on the basis that any amenity impacts could be adequately protected by the planning scheme.

Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t accepted by the Court: “Ultimately, the planning process is a separate process with different objectives and considerations to be taken into account. As pointed out by the defendants, restrictive covenants are given explicit priority over the planning process in s 61(4) of the Planning and Environment Act 1987 (Vic). On the basis of these authorities, I do not consider that the amenity concerns of the defendants can be appropriately met through application of the planning scheme.”

Plaintiffs sometimes succeed in using town planners with little or no covenant experience in non-contested cases, but this strategy is soon exposed once put to their proof by a well-advised defendant. The better strategy for applicants is to chose the correct town planner from the start of the process and to craft the application with suitable precision.

Matthew Townsend
Owen Dixon Chambers
http://www.vicbar.com.au/profile?3183
townsend@vicbar.com.au (04) 1122 0277
Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation

The Court reaffirms defendants’ right to costs, notwithstanding Calderbank offers

The Supreme Court has reaffirmed the principle in Re: WIthers [1970} VR 319, that in restrictive covenant cases, defendants are ordinarily entitled to their standard costs, even if they lose the contested proceedings.

In a carefully considered decision, inĀ Wong v McConville & Ors (No.2) [2014] VSC 282, AJ Derham rejected the plaintiff’s application for indemnity costs, notwithstanding that she made two “Calderbank offers”, or offers of compromise foreshadowing an application for indemnity costs should the defendants achieve a worse outcome at trial than the offer contained in the Calderbank letter.

Although a number of aspects of his Honour’s judgement turned on the particular facts of the merits hearing (see Wong v McConville & Ors [2014] VSC 148), the decision underscores the difficulty Plaintiffs face when endeavouring to settle an application to modify or remove a restrictive covenant prior to a contested hearing.

Some principles emerge from the case:

Calderbank offers are unlikely to be effective before all relevant evidence has been circulated:

There are usually no pleadings in cases of this kind, and there were none in this case. At the time the offer was made, and closed, the defendants had not, and had not been required to, file their evidence, including expert evidence. Nor had significant evidence in response to the evidence of the defendants, notably the Supplementary Report of Mr Easton, been filed or served. Thus the stage at which the offer was made preceded a full consideration of the relevant material. The prime focus of that material was the expert opinion of Mr Gattini, upon whose views the defendants were well entitled to depend in considering the offer, and Mr Easton’s response to it in October 2013. Another important element of the defendants’ evidence was the evidence of Mr Zhang concerning the effects of the proposed modification on the amenity of his, and his family’s, occupation of the neighbouring land. The defendants were entitled to consider the entirety of the evidence when considering their position. [Emphasis added]

Additional time, relative to ordinary proceedings, should be allowed to consider a Calderbank offer given the difficulty of getting instructions from a large group of objectors:

30… 14 days was allowed. Considered in isolation, that time is not umeasonable. This factor, however, must be considered in this case in conjunction with the first factor. The ability of the defendants, as a group, to consider the offer and arrive at a reasoned view must necessarily have been affected by the fact that they are brought together as neighbours. They were apparently not otherwise associated with one another. They lived at quite separate locations within the subdivision. They were encouraged by the Court’s orders to combine their resources so as to reduce costs. This, I infer, was likely to make it more difficult and time consuming to arrive at a decision. This is a matter that the plaintiff’s advisers ought to have known. Having regard to the state of the evidence at the time, either the offer was made too early, or insufficient time was given for them to consider the offer. [Emphasis added]

A good deal of ingenuity will be needed to devise an offer that is both attractive to defendants, but that will bind future owners of the land

35. The submission by the defendants that the concessions offered by the plaintiff in relation to setbacks and landscaping, in each of the 8 August and 10 October offers, could not form any part of an order of the Court modifying the covenant, has particular significance in this case. In this regard, the plaintiff submitted that the setback provision in the offer of 8 August could be made the subject of a negative stipulation (for example, that any dwelling at the rear of the burdened land shall not be closer than three metres to the southern boundary). The plaintiff’s counsel also submitted that the other elements of the offers could also be the subject of negative stipulations. I do not think that this is correct. It is, in my view beyond human ingenuity to turn a positive agreement to plant tall screening plants along the western and southern boundaries of the land into a negative stipulation. It must be remembered in this context, that it is immaterial whether the wording of the covenant is positive or negative. What is essential is that the covenant is negative in substance: Shepherd Homes Ltd v Sandham (No 2). [Emphasis added]

Read as a whole, the decision does not suggest Calderbank letters will be of no use in restrictive covenant cases. Rather, it perhaps suggests that they are unlikely to be effective much earlier than immediately before trial and that considerable efforts will be needed to devise an offer that is unreasonable for the defendants to reject on the merits. Solicitors will need to do far more than offer to reimburse the defendants’ costs in exchange for their collective capitulation.

Matthew Townsend
Owen Dixon Chambers
http://www.vicbar.com.au/profile?3183
townsend@vicbar.com.au (04) 1122 0277
Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation