Debate over city’s recovery emerges after agent fined for “multiple signs”
Agents from a prominent CBD commercial real estate company are engaged in a dispute with the City of Melbourne after the council penalised them more than $15K for erecting multiple unpermitted “for lease” signs at a Flinders Lane property.
But the real estate agents, who wished to remain anonymous, said it was standard practice for tenancies with separate titles at the same property to be allowed their own “for lease” or “for sale” signs without requiring separate permits.
There is a state-wide exemption from needing a planning permit for signage publicising the sale or letting of a property if the sign is less than 10 sqm and is only applicable to one sign per property.
While the council argues “tenancies” or “lots” within a property required separate permits, the agent said each of the Flinders Lane tenancies in question were under separate titles, and therefore, should be considered their own properties.
The signs, seen by CBD News, fall within the prescribed 10 sqm limit, and, according to the agents, had already helped to lease two of the four tenancies at the time of publishing despite the council’s penalties.
With real estate agents charged with filling the many empty commercial spaces left vacant due to the pandemic, the issue has sparked debate about how the council best interprets the Melbourne Planning Scheme in the context of the CBD’s ongoing recovery.
One agent accused the council of targeting “low-hanging fruit”, while the agents attempting to lease the vacant tenancies at the Flinders Lane property have called on the council to hold an information session with the industry for the “hundreds of disgruntled landlords and agents”.
“This has never been the application of this scheme until what seems like now,” the agent said. “The process of obtaining the permit is the same as a developer proposing a new tower in the city.”
“Any strata landlords wanting to sell or lease their property will need an additional eight to 12 weeks factored into their campaign as well as hundreds of dollars with no guarantee it will be approved – not great in getting the city leased up quickly.”
According to the agent, each of the four vacant tenancies have their own strata titles, meaning they are ordinarily entitled to their own individual signs, “as is seen with every strata office building in Melbourne.”
The agent told CBD News that it had since accumulated more than $15,000 worth of fines from the council, which it claims had refused its appeal “with no reason given” as it sought urgent clarification on the matter.
“Every week we get fined, this week for ‘multiple signs’ on a strata building, weeks ago it was for having a ‘wobbling and dangerous board’, which we feel was a targeted attack to stop us from further questioning fines at the power of the [council’s] planning department,” the agent said.
“Agents, and especially retail agents, play an important role in the regeneration of the CBD; we assist the city in getting leased up and bring activity and office workers back by providing good retail amenity.”
“We want to work with the City of Melbourne in bringing our city back to life, but we are trying to navigate how we do this at the moment as we continuously get fined by its planning department for trying to do so.”
While the council didn’t respond to individual questions from CBD News on this exact case, it said specific regulations around the number and size of signs allowed existed “to better manage signage clutter in the community.”
“Council is responsible for enforcing the planning scheme,” a council spokesperson told CBD News.
“We encourage all businesses to contact the council and seek advice to ensure any necessary approvals are in place before erecting signage. We offer a pre-application service that all residents and business owners can use to check if a planning permit is required.”
Strata lawyer Tom Bacon said the way in which the council chose to interpret the Melbourne Planning Scheme was “always open to legal challenges” but encouraged the CBD’s real estate industry to engage constructively with the council.
“From a legal point of view, they [the agents] can appeal it. They don’t have to pay it, they can challenge it through the courts, but they’re better off engaging with the council’s senior management and asking, ‘why don’t you reverse these fines, and we’ll work with you rather than against you?’,” he said.
Mr Bacon suggested that the rationale behind the council’s approach might be to limit the number of signs in a tight area to minimise the visual impacts of COVID-19 and an empty city.
“‘For lease’ signs show the CBD as dead,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Property Council said while it had not received similar complaints from its members or been made aware of ongoing issues, it would “continue to advocate for our members’ interests to all levels of government.”
“Signage continues to be an important part of the mix for commercial real estate to promote current vacancies, and to support increased tenancy in the city, something we’re all keen to see,” the spokesperson said.
At the time of publishing, it’s understood the City of Melbourne’s planning team had sought a meeting with the agency to clarify and workshop its processes for future signage applications. •