(1) The facts about spot rezoning

Quick tutorial on planning (1):
Spot rezoning

Planning instruments are a contract between government and the governed.

Planning instruments direct future urban change along agreed paths. They reduce the risks of shocks and adverse impacts on landowners and investors, enabling an orderly property market based on defined rights, in place of an otherwise wild property casino.

Developers and their financiers depend on zoning for a reasonably predictable property market but as individuals they want it to be a casino, delivering windfalls through the rezoning of just their own sites.

Changing the rules for just one site – spot rezonings – are the main game for some kinds of developer.*

Spot rezonings, and ministerial approvals against the rules, were commonplace in the early days of statutory planning. They were slowly abandoned in all states. Then they made a big comeback in NSW in various guises over the past two decades.

Urban development in NSW is now characterised by ‘planning proposals’, unsolicited proposals, state strategic development, priority precincts, pre-gateway review, rezoning review and other ways that make adopted zones and strategic plans irrelevant.

We’ve seen how a combination of these short-cuts and work-arounds have been used by the NSW Government to exploit sites in the North Sydney city centre and Crows Nest through their latest financial vehicle, Sydney Metro.

The use of spot zoning is clearly reflected in the St Leonards ‘peninsula’ of North Sydney. Between 2013 and 2019, four sites in the St Leonards ‘peninsula’ of North Sydney have been spot zoned, shown on the four maps. Individual sites seem to have been given significantly greater development potential, one by one.

Then in June this year a small site was given the rights for a large amount of commercial space and 195 apartments. All of this on a quarter acre site! – requiring the floor space ratio to be increased from the existing ~10 to 25, unprecedented and totally off the scale.

This was achieved through amendment 24 to the North Sydney local environmental plan. Anyone reading the text of the amendment would see no hint of such an extraordinary floor space ratio. The floor space ratio was implemented by a change to the FSR Map, as shown in map No 4 below.

iNorth Sydney Council spot-zones a small site for a big skyscraper

This massive development on a quarter acre site also required the height limit to be increased from 49 m to 180 m, higher than some of the taller buildings in the Sydney CBD, including the AMP tower at Circular Quay and Australia Square!

From 49 m of offices to 180 m of apartments, just like that!

Anyone reading the text of the amendment would see no hint of such an extraordinary height limit. The permissible height was increased 360% by a change to the Height Map.

Most permissible heights on the map range from 13 m on the right through 20-40 m in the middle to 49 m on the left. That little yellow patch labelled ‘AF’ takes the height of that single 1,067m2 site to 180 m!

Communities that expect the rules of their local LEPs to be adhered to are furious about the backdoor and fast-tracked approvals that the NSW Government offers to developers. Labor went into the last election promising to end spot rezoning. At the time Treasurer Dominic Perrottet claimed, in effect, that spot rezoning reduces congestion, keeps house prices lower and speeds up planning approvals (Murray Trembath, Cronulla and Sutherland Shire Leader, 15 May 2019).

The NSW Government recognises the community’s opposition to spot rezoning. Planning Minister Rob Stokes, who sees the answer in the more frequent updating of LEPs, has said that his ambition is ‘a future where spot rezoning doesn’t have a role’ (Jacob Saulwick and Megan Gorrey, SMH, 15 May 2019).

Bring it on now, Dr Stokes.

* There are many ways to change the rules, for instance by changing the zone of the site, or the floor space ratio (used to calculate the size of the building), or the height, or permitted uses. Any and all of these can increase the scale of a development, and are all referred to here as spot rezoning.