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Greens and Liberals accuse ACT government of allowing builders to get away with ignoring building plans

Liberal and Green politicians have accused the ACT planning directorate of allowing builders to contravene building approvals without repercussions.

"The perception out there is that if you build it then ACTPLA will eventually approve it," Greens parliamentarian Caroline Le Couteur told officials at a hearing last week. "The community perception ... is that people put something in, then they figure if I actually make it a metre or two bigger, or whatever, ACTPLA wont say no."

Ms Le Couteur pointed to a garage wall in Narrabundah that she said was much higher than the approved 3.4 metres, and to a cellar being built next to the boundary of a separate Narrabundah property without consultation with the neighbour.

The Liberals' Nicole Lawder referred to a separate dispute in Gordon, where an excavation on a boundary had damaged the neighbour's property. 

"What is the rationale for approving an amended [development application] for something that is clearly the wrong thing, why would the department do that?" she asked. "When the builder has quite clearly a) done something that was not in the original DA, and b) done something that's too close to a boundary and breaks the other rules... why would you then approve an amended DA?"

Deputy director-general in Access Canberra Dave Peffer said given the cost of demolishing a new house, the directorate had decided instead to ensure the building and boundary was safe. 

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"We have to take account of what is the impact on both parties, not just one one," he said, while acknowledging the case had brought "considerable discomfort to the neighbour".

Ms Lawder responded that "people have a view that ACTPLA will approve it no matter what you do".

To which Ms Le Couteur added: "I think there needs to be some sort of clear message sent to the industry that there are consequences if you don't follow the plans, there are consequences. And demolition or rectification is a very likely consequence. That's what the community expects. It's not really what's happening."

In Narrabundah Rosina Valenzisi was horrified to discover a brick wall built to about 4.3 m on her northwestern boundary, blocking sun. The plans allowed 3.4 m, which Ms Le Couteur said was arguably too high under solar rules, but the garage had been built almost 1 m higher.

The owner has now submitted a new development application for approval, and officials told Ms Le Couteur they were "very actively looking at that one".

Ms Le Couteur said when the neighbours of the Narrabundah cellar excavation had complained, they were told "exempt, go away madam", and when they contacted planning they were told they would get a response within 30 days. 

The neighbour, Stan Bevanda said while he had been told the cellar, 2.5 m deep, was exempt from consultation, the exemption rules were designed for small areas, such as garden storage, and exempting such significant work opened a loophole. 

But the neighbour Zarko Rychevski said his redevelopment, including the cellar, had been done completely within the planning rules and he had gone out of his way to make sure that was the case. The neighbour who complained was a renter and there was no reason renters should be consulted for a next-door cellar, he said.

"They have been trying to stop anything I do," he said of the neighbours. "Everyone else on the street supports what I'm doing."

Mr Rychevski is deeply upset that the Greens have raised his legal build as though there is something wrong, and has contacted the Greens to complain and invite them to visit his home and see his development and approvals for themselves.

Ms Le Couteur raised another case where plans had shown a timber floor and the builder had built a concrete slab instead, to which Mr Peffer said sometimes plans changed during building for good reason. 

"In terms of replacing a wooden floor with a  concrete slab ... that is something that we'd expect dialogue to occur between the builder during the process and the owner ... and when that doesn't occur and the certifier isn't involved actively advising the property  owner, I guess that's a pretty disappointing outcome."

"To put it mildly," Ms Le Couteur responded.

Planning  deputy director-general Gary Rake said the directorate was changing its approach so builders with a good track record were subject to less scrutiny and those "on the edge of the rules or on the wrong side of the rules will be facing much greater scrutiny".

Neither he nor Mr Peffer provided an immediate answer to repeated questions from Ms Le Couteur about how often builders were asked to demolish or return to the original plans.

Mr Peffer said in the Gordon case, when plans were resubmitted and approved, the builder had worn significant costs, having to stop work, employ engineers and submit again.

Ms Lawder said neighbours had also spent tends of thousands of dollars on legal and engineering advice with no way of recouping the money other than taking a civil case.

​"Where's the equity in that?" she asked. "She and her family has done nothing wrong and they're the victims. And that's the public perception, that it's the innocent party that bears the brunt of the impact of these decisions."