Supreme Court accepts a rooming house is a legitimate ‘comparator’ when modifying a single dwelling covenant

In April 2019, in Re: EAPE (Holdings) Pty Ltd [2019] VSC 242, the Supreme Court found that when advancing a case for the modification of a single dwelling covenant, it is legitimate to say that the proposal for modification should be compared against a rooming house–an as-of-right land use arguably providing accommodation to the lowest end of the rental market.

This is potentially significant, because until this time, the comparator typically used in argument before the Court is a large single dwelling that would not need planning permission. In other words, applicants often argue:

– I can build this large house without modifying the covenant;

– given that my proposal for two or more dwellings is lower in impact than a large house, I should be allowed to modify the covenant for there is, relatively speaking, no substantial injury to beneficiaries by the covenant being so modified.

Now, applicants before the Court can legitimately invite the court to compare the proposed modification with the impact that beneficiaries might experience if the land was instead developed and used as a rooming house, with the increased activity, noise and parking impacts that routinely accompany such uses.

In EAPE the Court placed considerable emphasis on the plaintiff’s apparently genuine intentions to pursue the rooming house option in the event the modification was not granted, but one can imagine judges in future cases simply being convinced that a rooming house was a reasonably likely outcome of its refusal to modify a covenant: see Prowse v Johnston [2012] VSC 4 at 120.

VCAT confirms 60(5) of the Planning and Environment Act 1987 is only useful for removing “deadwood” restrictive covenants

In the Red Dot decision of Giosis v Darebin CC [2013] VCAT 825, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal comprised of Senior Member H. McM Wright QC confirmed that 60(5) of the Planning and Environment Act 1987 (Act) is useful for little more than removing “deadwood” or non-contentious restrictive covenants.

The case concerned an applicant seeking to review the decision of the Darebin City Council to refuse a permit to vary a restrictive covenant burdening land at 26 Maclagan Crescent, Reservoir (refer detail from Land Victoria, plan below).

The part of the covenant sought to be varied vary provides as follows.

(c)           no shops, laundries, factories or works shall be erected on this Lot and not more than one dwelling house shall be erected on any one Lot and the cost of constructing each house shall not be less than Four Hundred Pounds (inclusive of all architect’s fees and the cost of erecting any outbuildings and fences). [emphasis added]

The variation sought to replace the words “one dwelling house” with the words “three dwellings” thereby enabling the application to be made to redevelop the land for three units or dwellings.

There were five objectors, three of which were beneficiaries, all of whom lived 100m away from the burdened land.

The Council had refused the application on the grounds that:

The proposed variation to the Covenant … to allow not more than three dwellings to be constructed on the lot will result in detriment to beneficiaries and is therefore contrary to Section 60(5) of the Planning and Environment Act 1987.

60(5) of the Act provides:

(5)          The responsible authority must not grant a permit which allows the removal or variation of a restriction referred to in subsection (4) unless it is satisfied that –

(a)          the owner of any land benefitted by the restriction (other than a owner who, before or after the making of the application for the permit but not more than three months before its making, has consented in writing to the grant of a permit) will be unlikely to suffer any detriment of any kind (including any perceived detriment) as a consequence of the removal or variation of the restriction; and

(b)          if that owner has objected to the grant of the permit, the objection is vexatious or not made in good faith.

The Tribunal quoted from the second reading speech of the Planning and Environment (Amendment) Act 1993 (Vic) that inserted section 60(5) into the Act. This speech coined the term “deadwood” covenants or covenants without a continuing purpose:

The effect of the clause is that permits should be granted only for “dead wood” covenants if no owner benefitting from the covenant objects to its removal or variation. The alterative avenues to remove or vary a covenant remain in place, being applications to the Supreme Court under the Property Law Act 1958 and the preparation of a planning scheme amendment.

After quoting from Carabott and Ors v Hume City Council (1998) 22 AATR 261 that considered the effect of s60(5) of the Act in some detail, the Tribunal raised a particular flaw with the proposal before it—the absence of plans:

17           Unlike many applications for a variation of a restrictive covenant the present applicant has not concurrently sought approval for any particular form of development. This makes it difficult for the responsible authority to be satisfied as required by paragraph (a) because it must consider all possible forms of three unit multi-dwelling development and conclude that it is unlikely that any of them would cause detriment to a benefitting owner.

The Tribunal found in the absence of a firm development proposal there were an infinite number of three unit or three dwelling developments that could take place in consequence of the variation of the covenant and that it could not be “positively satisfied of a negative, namely, that there is unlikely to be detriment of any kind”:

21           … In my view it is simply not possible to say that none of those developments would be likely to have a detrimental impact of some kind on the benefitting properties, particularly the adjoining units at 28 Maclagan Crescent. The application for permit therefore falls at the first hurdle.

This case therefore underscores the limited utility of applying to VCAT to modify or remove a covenant in the face of heartfelt opposition on the part of one or more beneficiaries. The absence of plans simply made the task more difficult.