Compatibility – Project Venture Developments v Pittwater Council

Project Venture Development Pty Ltd v Pittwater Council provides us with guidance when considering the compatability of a proposal within its local area.

The guidance provided by the Court in Project Venture Development is as follows:

1. Compatability is different from “sameness”: “There are many dictionary definitions of compatible. The most apposite meaning in an urban design context is capable of existing together in harmony. Compatibility is thus different from sameness. It is generally accepted that buildings can exist together in harmony without having the same density, scale or appearance, though as the difference in these attributes increases, harmony is harder to achieve.”

2. Compatability is not always desirable:There are situations where extreme differences in scale and appearance produce great urban design involving landmark buildings. There are situations where the planning controls envisage a change of character, in which case compatibility with the future character is more appropriate than with the existing. Finally, there are urban environments that are so unattractive that it is best not to reproduce them.”

3. Where compatability is desirable, physical and visual impacts need to be considered

The physical impacts, such as noise, overlooking, overshadowing and constraining development potential, can be assessed with relative objectivity. In contrast, to decide whether or not a new building appears to be in harmony with its surroundings is a more subjective task. Analysing the existing context and then testing the proposal against it can, however, reduce the degree of subjectivity.

For a new development to be visually compatible with its context, it should contain, or at least respond to, the essential elements that make up the character of the surrounding urban environment. In some areas, planning instruments or urban design studies have already described the urban character. In others (the majority of cases), the character needs to be defined as part of a proposal’s assessment. The most important contributor to urban character is the relationship of built form to surrounding space, a relationship that is created by building height, setbacks and landscaping. In special areas, such as conservation areas, architectural style and materials are also contributors to character.”

4. There are other contributing factors, including height, setbacks and landscaping:

“Buildings do not have to be the same height to be compatible. Where there are significant differences in height, it is easier to achieve compatibility when the change is gradual rather than abrupt. The extent to which height differences are acceptable depends also on the consistency of height in the existing streetscape.

Front setbacks and the way they are treated are an important element of urban character. Where there is a uniform building line, even small differences can destroy the unity. Setbacks from side boundaries determine the rhythm of building and void. While it may not be possible to reproduce the rhythm exactly, new development should strive to reflect it in some way.

Landscaping is also an important contributor to urban character. In some areas landscape dominates buildings, in others buildings dominate the landscape. Where canopy trees define the character, new developments must provide opportunities for planting canopy trees.”

5. To assess the matters above, two questions should be considered:

In order to test whether a proposal is compatible with its context, two questions should be asked.

Are the proposal’s physical impacts on surrounding development acceptable? The physical impacts include constraints on the development potential of surrounding sites.

Is the proposal’s appearance in harmony with the buildings around it and the character of the street?”


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Alyce is a civil engineer and a practicing lawyer, who has a desire to share her insights on the legal and practical realities of the development industry.