Reformed Residential Zones – Review and Analysis

Monday 27th March 2017 saw the gazettal of the altered residential zones in Victoria, via Amendment VC110. The amendment primarily affects the General Residential Zone (GRZ) and Neighbourhood Residential Zone (NRZ), with minor changes to the Residential Growth Zone (RGZ).

Background information on the review, including the Managing Residential Development Advisory Committee and State of Play Reports, can be found at the State Planning Website.

Whilst the Government contend the new zones get the balance right… provide for the protection of the character and liveabilityand support growth in the right areas [1], there are others, such as Dr. Stephen Rowley (RMIT Planning Lecturer & Consultant), that disagree: Chopping and changing the planning tools in this manner undermines good planning – a great deal of strategic work from the last few years now has to be revisited. [2]

The key noticeable changes to the zones include:

Neighbourhood Residential Zone

  • No restriction on number of dwellings per lot.
  • Maximum mandatory height is 9m* with a maximum of 2 storeys – dwelling or residential building only.
  • The zone purpose no longer seeks to limit opportunities for increased residential development.
  • The zone purpose no longer seeks to implement neighbourhood character policy/guidelines.
  • Neighbourhood, environmental, landscape and heritage character for a particular area must be included in a schedule to the zone.
  • Mandatory requirement for a minimum ground level garden area** dependant on lot size***.
  • Transitional provisions ensure applications lodged before the 27th March 2017 will not be assessed under this revised policy****.

General Residential Zone

  • Maximum mandatory height is 11m* with a maximum of 3 storeys – dwelling or residential building only.
  • The zone purpose no longer seeks to implement neighbourhood character policy/guidelines.
  • A purpose of the zone has been slightly altered as follows: To provide encourage a diversity of housing types and moderate housing growth particularly in locations offering good access to services and transport.
  • Neighbourhood, environmental, landscape and heritage character for a particular area may be included in a schedule to the zone.
  • Mandatory requirement for a minimum ground level garden area** dependant on lot size***.
  • Transitional provisions ensure applications lodged before the 27th March 2017 will not be assessed under this revised policy****.

Residential Growth Zone

  • A new purpose is included to ensure residential development achieves design objectives specified in a schedule to this zone.
  • A purpose of the zone has been slightly altered as follows: to encourage a diversity of housing types in locations offering good access to services and transport including  activities areas activity centres and town centres.

*These heights may be exceeded in particular circumstances such as  sloping sites, land subject to flooding and where existing/adjoining building heights are higher (subject to criteria).

**Garden Area is defined at Clause 72 of each Planning Scheme as follows:

***The minimum garden area for a NRZ and GRZ site is required as follows:

****There is no guidance as to whether or not a Section 50 or 57A amendment of an application, which was submitted prior to 27th March 2017, would reset the application so that it is captured by the new policy. Preliminary indications would suggest that it is best to avoid these.

Discussion

The State Government had to make a change – NRZ land was implemented across Melbourne, more widespread in some Council’s, in areas that were better suited to more intense development. This was a legacy of the previous Government and did not represent sustainable spatial planning.

It appears that rather than re-zone the unsuitable NRZ land, the changes seek to open these areas up for potentially more intense development through the removal of maximum numbers, whilst also reducing the development potential of GRZ land through the introduction of minimum garden areas.

The Planning Minister claims these changes will provide certainty [1] – however at this stage that certainty is far from apparent. 

The introduction of the same garden area requirement for both NRZ and GRZ leaves very little to set these two apart, a similar density will result in many cases. The allowance of an additional floor in the GRZ areas will do little to increase density – yes we may see more 3-storey dwellings with larger garden area, but this does not represent urban consolidation. The opportunity for apartment buildings or reverse living outcomes has nearly all but diminished and there are many GRZ sites across Melbourne which are strategically and contextually suited to such development.

Taking the garden areas out of the equation and looking closer at the policy of each zone, there is a more valid distinction between the two and this may become vitally important should the Government roll back some of the garden area restrictions linked with GRZ land. This is something that has not been ruled out, with rumours that some changes may come through under future Smart Planning policy changes – in my opinion such alterations to the GRZ could include making the garden area discretionary for the following sites:

  • Those which have less than the required percentage garden area on-site at the time of an application;
  • Those located adjacent to a Road Zone Category 1 (generally more robust character and include bus routes);
  • Those located within 300m direct distance of a train station, tram stop or designated Activity Centre.

As mentioned, a closer comparison of the two zones (without the garden area) provides a difference:

  • It is clear neighbourhood character considerations do not hold the same weight in the GRZ sites as it does in sites zoned NRZ – the discretionary use of schedules for neighbourhood character and the removal of local policy and guidelines from the purpose of the GRZ are two indications of this.
  • The change of the wording in the third purpose of the GRZ from provide to encourage, removal of the word moderate and inclusion of the word particularly in reference to areas close to activity centres, all indicate that this zone seeks to allow a more dense response than the NRZ.
  • The increase of the maximum height to three storeys may allow for apartment buildings or townhouses of this size where the garden area can be provided or if this requirement is altered in the future.

In both zones neighbourhood character has been left somewhat in limbo through the removal of reference to adopted local policy or guidelines and the facility to include character schedules. It is unknown what will happen at Council’s which have such existing policy. For example, in the case of Moreland City Council, Clause 22.01 directly links and requires an assessment against its neighbourhood character policy through Clause 55.02-1 and Clause 54.02-1. The same situation is applicable to many other Councils.

Even if there is no policy link in planning schemes, does the State Government assume Council’s will not have regard to non-statutory character policy and guidelines? This has already been happening for years, with VCAT being the only independent judge in such cases. The neighbourhood character question remains to be addressed and in the meantime I expect Council’s to continue as they have always done, with robust discussions to be had at VCAT on this topic in the future. 

Looking at the altered policy from a sustainability and climate change perspective there are positives and negatives. The new zones will restrict urban consolidation in many areas and, in particular, areas in close proximity to public transport, employment and services. With a growing population, we need to direct future growth into such areas. As identified by Buxton et al. [3] a range of medium density, lower-cost and more diverse housing types and sizes are needed where most people live now – in the established suburbs.  The consistent use of garden areas within the GRZ and NRZ will not address this issue but may in fact direct much of the future housing to apartments in Commercial 1, Mixed Use and RGZ sites. 

From a positive perspective the larger garden areas, which we presume will be predominately permeable, will provide greater areas for stormwater management on-site, reducing the over-reliance on channelling water to our natural waterways, into the bay and polluting our natural environment [4]. The new garden area will inevitably increase the permeability of most sites above the minimum 20% suggested at Standard B9 of Clause 55 provisions.  

The larger garden areas may also allow for meaningful landscaping areas which can cater for greater landscaping and larger trees. This could assist in addressing the urban heat island effect (UHI) which has been identified as a serious issue for Melbourne, especially as more extreme weather events are expected.

The increased temperature in urbanised areas is a result of one or combination of the following: a high percentage of low-albedo and impermeable surfaces, a reduction in the cooling effect of shading as trees are replaced by buildings or roads, the urban canyon effect where heat gets trapped and re-radiated back to the ground by tall buildings, and a comparatively high concentration of greenhouses gases relative to surrounding areas [5]. This increased landscaped area could result in a positive environmental response, along with the new requirements of the Better Apartment Design Standards which require minimum deep soil areas with canopy trees as part of the landscaping standard. 

Whether or not these possible environmental benefits were a consideration of the policy revisions, they must be seen as a positive.

Overall, the revisions could have been implemented in a more clear and concise manner. There is a great deal of uncertainty as to the potential of GRZ and NRZ land to cater for increased density. The changes to the GRZ as suggested in this article could provide a better balance and a more sustainable, balanced and fair outcome. It is quite clear the changes will have significant impacts for developers of potential NRZ and GRZ sites, with yields previously anticipated no longer achievable. From an environmental perspective the policy change may have indirect benefits as highlighted and with some further considered alterations, the policies could result in a balanced and sustainable outcome for the future of Melbourne.

 

References

  1. The State of Victoria Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning, Reformed Residential Zones (2017) pg. 3 Web Address (accessed 28/03/2017)
  2. The Age, Andrews government changes to planning laws angers Boroondara Council, (2017) Web Address (accessed 28/03/2017)
  3. M. Buxton, R. Goodman, S. Moloney, Planning Melbourne Lessons for a Sustainable City (2016) pg. 183 CSIRO Publishing
  4. D. Corbett, Melbourne Water: Achieving sustainable stormwater management in Melbourne, Australia, as part of the journey to a water sensitive city (2010)
  5. H. Al-Gretawee, S. Rayburg, M. Neave, The Cooling Effect of a Medium Sized Urban Park on an Urban Environment (2016) International Journal of GEOMATE Vol 11, Issue 26, pp. 2541-2546

Image Credit: The State of Victoria Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning, Reformed Residential Zones (2017)

 

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