The Court sounds a note of caution to ambitious developers

The Supreme Court has refused an application to modify a single dwelling covenant to allow a 21 apartment development over two lots (~1,400sqm) in 9 Highlands Road in Thomastown–notwithstanding the absence of objectors in Court to oppose the application.

The decision of Re Morihovitis [2016] VSC 684 is somewhat different to the decision of Re Jensen [2012] VSC 638 where the Court refused a relatively modest unopposed application because it was proposed amongst a relatively intact network of single dwellings. Rather, the application in Re Morihovitis was found to be simply too great a departure from what the covenant originally contemplated:

 The absence of a single dwelling covenant on no. 11 immediately exposes the peculiar and testing feature of this application.  Subject to planning laws and considerations, there is nothing on title to prevent the plaintiff as owner of no. 11 from building an apartment block, or at the least, there is no restrictive covenant getting in the way of a planning application to do so.  But the presence of the restrictive covenant on no. 9 Highlands Road obliges the responsible authority under the Planning and Environment Act to refuse to grant a planning permit unless the covenant over that land is removed or varied.  Thus, by this application Mr Morihovitis seeks under s 84(1) of the Property Law Act to modify the single dwelling covenant on no. 9 by deleting and adding words as shown in this way −

… not at any time hereafter excavate carry away or remove or permit to be excavated carried away or removed any earth clay stone gravel or sand from the said land hereby transferred except for the purpose of excavating for the foundations construction of any building and basement to be erected thereon and that not more than one dwelling house and outhouses shall be erected on the said lot hereby transferred

The Court therefore found it would alter the character of the neighbourhood:

The judgment to be made about ‘substantial injury’ turns on the nature and degree of the injury to those benefits.  Here, in my judgment, the location of the proposed development is not so removed from the residential area of the neighbourhood that it can be regarded as being sufficiently far away from it to say that such changes will not be seen and felt.  It will be a conspicuous part of the neighbourhood.  It will be the only apartment block in the neighbourhood.  The scale of the project and its departure from the scale of any existing residential developments in the neighbourhood, means that if it does not of itself create the sort of notorious problems of higher density living as I have identified them, it will in my judgment be the beginnings of altering the character of the neighbourhood.

Although the Plaintiff endeavoured to make the most of the absence of objectors, the Court pushed back on any suggestion it would give the Plaintiff a free rein:

No objectors have attended Court.  However, it is established in the legal authorities on these applications that the absence of objectors does not necessarily satisfy the onus of proof, and it certainly does not amount to implied assent. But as is commonly submitted in these applications, the absence of objectors ought go some way to overcome a court’s caution.  In this case, it was submitted that the absence of objectors willing to advance their objection to a substantial development such as this was especially significant, meaning to say I think the Court should not be overly cautious or assailed by the scale of the development in the assessment of substantial injury.  The submission went a little further.  It was submitted that known cases where such applications were refused were, or tended to be, opposed applications on which the Court could act on grounds of resistance from a beneficiaries according to evidence adduced by them.  In this case, although it was said that the Court has to play devil’s advocate, it was submitted the Court should, in the absence of objectors or any other evidence, act on the plaintiff’s evidence.     

I do not accept the amplitude of that submission.

Ultimately, the Plaintiff was held to the contract he struck when he purchased his land, at least insofar as the present development was concerned:

To put it in plain terms, Mr Morihovitis has bought land knowing of a negative covenant on it which binds him as if he made it by private contract.  He cannot use the land in defiance of that contract.  By statute this Court might discharge that obligation or modify it if doing so will not cause substantial injury to those to whom the promise was made.  That cannot be done by saying or assuming that the planning authority will ensure that the apartment development is in accordance with planning laws and regulations.  The question for the Court is whether the landowner should be relieved of his promise and allowed to build an apartment block in the first place, before it is subjected to planning scrutiny.  For the reasons I have given, in my judgment the plaintiff has not shown that the proposed modification will not cause substantial injury to those to whom the covenant was given.

Dealing with deregistered companies referred to in restrictive covenants

Restrictive covenants in Victoria often give development discretion to companies that have long been deregistered. A good example is the series of covenants affecting the area around Altona that may provide:

… nor will I or my heirs executors administrators or transferees use any material other than brick and/or stone for the main walls of any such shop or dwelling house without the consent in writing of the said Altona Beach Estates Limited

Altona Beach Estates Limited, the original developer of the land, has long ceased to exist.

A question is then raised: how will the Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC) exercise its discretion if it is called upon to act in the capacity of the deregistered company pursuant to section 601AE(2) of the Corporations Act 2001?

Helpfully, ASIC has produced a practice note of sorts to explain its policy in relation to such requests.

This policy states that ASIC may consider applications for consent under an encumbrance (e.g. plans of subdivision where there is no specific prohibition to subdivision in the encumbrance; construction of a fence within the restrictions/conditions of the encumbrance) and may consider applications to discharge expired encumbrances. However, ASIC will not otherwise vary the restrictions/conditions of an encumbrance or discharge a current encumbrance.

It is not then, as some might have you believe, a fait accomplis that the discretion will be exercised in the applicant’s favour.

The policy can be found here: http://asic.gov.au/for-business/closing-your-company/effects-of-deregistration/property-of-deregistered-companies/there-is-an-encumbrance-also-known-as-a-covenant-or-restrictive-covenant-over-my-property-in-favour-of-a-deregistered-company/

Objecting to an application to modify or discharge a restrictive covenant

If you own land with the benefit of a restrictive covenant, you may receive a letter by mail or see a sign on land giving notice of an application to modify or discharge it pursuant to s84 of the Property Law Act 1958.

If you wish to contest this application you may wish to:

  • write an objection; and/or
  • appear in court to support that objection.

The first step is to ascertain whether you have the benefit of the covenant. Because covenants are essentially contracts that run with the land, the law generally says that if you are not party to a contract you have no standing to enforce it.

If you have received written notice of the application, the chances are that your land has been identified as having the benefit of the covenant. If you have simply seen the sign on the land and live nearby, someone may have formed the view that your land either does not have the benefit of the covenant or that the modification or removal will not affect you. Or it may mean that the address for correspondence on your land title is out of date. This is surprisingly common.

If you are unsure whether your land has the benefit of a covenant, the cheapest and quickest option is to contact an experienced title searcher such as Dinah Newell from Feigl & Newell on (03) 9629-3011 or info@feiglnewell.com.au This is a specialised task and it is risky to leave it to someone who hasn’t done it before.

Once you have established a benefit, the question might then be what to write in your objection. Two decisions of the Victorian Supreme Court provide some guidance. The first is Prowse v Johnston in which Justice Cavanough listed the concerns of residents that he accepted were reasons a single dwelling covenant was not obsolete:

108 The objections of the defendants are set out in the various affidavits sworn by them. They are summarised in their written outline of submissions as follows:

(a) Loss of character of the residential estate being an estate with large single dwelling family homes and substantial gardens;

(b) Loss of privacy and overlooking into neighbouring private outdoor living areas and gardens;

(c) Bulk and dominance of proposed building particularly when viewed from adjoining residences and property;

(d) Loss of large, spacious Edwardian family home on the burdened land and surrounding mature trees and established garden;

(e) Loss of family neighbourhood with front and rear garden;

(f) Loss of spaciousness, beauty and privacy;

(g) Construction of a three-storey building with basement car parking over virtually the entire site in conflict with the prevalent single dwelling residential character of the area;

(h) Additional noise, traffic, parking and access issues associated with 18 units and 33 [actually 36] basement car spaces;

(i) This is the “thin end of the wedge” and the precedent effect of the removal of a covenant for the construction of a large unit development would be very significant;

(j) The character of the Coonil Estate has been maintained for over 90 years and should be preserved;

(k) Much of the Coonil Estate is a recognised heritage overlay area which should be preserved;

(l) The proposed development will be an isolated “eye sore” in stark contrast to the many period and heritage homes surrounding the burdened land; and

(m) The plaintiff’s land was purchased as part of the Coonil Estate, and has benefited from the reciprocal covenants given by others.

109 I accept that these are all admissible objections, though some are stronger than others. They are relevant to show that the covenant is not obsolete. They are also relevant for other purposes, to which I will come. The covenant is not obsolete. The purposes of the covenant are still being achieved throughout the Estate and on the burdened land, with a contribution in that respect from the covenant on the burdened land.

In the more recent decision of Oostemeyer v Powell Justice Riordan set out in paragraphs [36] to [45] the evidence he relied upon to reject an application to modify a covenant made pursuant to s84(1)(c) of the Property Law Act 1958 the so-called “substantial injury” test.

Once you have registered your opposition to the application to modify or remove the covenant you may be required to appear in the Supreme Court to support your objection. That is not to say the court will not consider your objection if you don’t appear. The Court generally reads every objection closely. However, in the standard form notice in the Court’s Guide for practitioners, the court makes it clear that “Written objections without an attendance may not be considered.”

Once at court, the Judge in charge of the list will set the matter down for a contested hearing.

It’s a matter of judgement at what point you wish to get a solicitor and/or barrister involved, if at all. Oostemeyer v Powell (above) demonstrates that unrepresented residents can succeed in fending off an attack on a covenant. However, it is relatively rare that objectors represent themselves in a contested hearing, partly because of the complexity of the proceedings and the time involved; and partly because objectors are typically reimbursed most of their costs, even if they are unsuccessful, in accordance with the principle in Re Withers.

Download a .pdf of this note.

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.

 

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