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Landscaping plans are essential for council approval - here’s what you need to know

  • Written by Landscape designer Nigel Meier, Virtual Landscaping Design Australia

Building on your own property? What a lot of homeowners don’t know is that some landscaping features need council approval. While it might not be at the top of your to-do list, the best time to start planning the landscape is when the building plans are being finalised.

Planning your outdoor space

Landscape design is more important than you think. Not only does it add value to the property, it’s essential to be able to finalise the house master plan and ensure there’s a seamless transition from outside to inside, and around the property.

Technology has made incredible advancements when it comes to visualising outdoor spaces. Photorealistic 3D renders are key to planning and allows you to test not only the functionality and flow of the space, but the aesthetic of each plant, tree, path and feature - allowing you to see exactly what it’s going to look like before you break ground. For me, I would never sign off on a kitchen plan without a 3D render, and it’s exactly the same for outdoor spaces. A well planned landscape can be the difference between it being used every day, or every now and then.

The blueprint for success

Landscape plans are essential for both council approval and a successful build - regardless of whether you plan to DIY or engage a licenced contractor.

Landscape plans typically include:

  • Master Plan: Overview of the entire project, with detailed measurements from each structure to each property boundary.

  • Relative Level (RL) Plan: Showing specific numbers on the plan that indicate the level of each structure.

  • Section/Elevation Drawings: Showing the structures from the sides, front and back views, including heights of roof lines.

  • Stormwater Drainage Plan: Showing proper water management.

Understand council requirements and approvals

When considering structures like pergolas, arbors, decks, or retaining walls, it's important to consider whether council approval is required.

Approval can take different forms:

  • A Development Application (DA) is a formal application submitted to your local council authority for permission to carry out a new development.

  • Complying Development Certificate application (CDC) requires you to meet certain criteria including design plans, a certificate of title, site plan, building specifications and structural plans. I think of it as streamlining the approval process by combining the planning and construction approval in one go. The CDC) does not require a construction certificate, as it’s usually a post-build approval. I think of it as having an inspection after it’s all built to confirm it’s an exact match to the plans submitted. However, sometimes more information and detailed plans are requested, and then a CDC application will be required. My advice is to talk to the council first, before building these structures.

To secure approval, you have three options:

  • Apply for a Home Builder License through the department of Fair Trading in your state or territory, this allows you to engage multiple contractors who specialise in certain areas to do the job.

  • Engage a licensed contractor. This company would apply for the relevant consent and organise the inspections and final paperwork on your behalf. Because they are licensed they can subcontract different trades within their contract with you to perform all the necessary requirements to get the build complete. The big advantage here is you only deal with 1 person, not multiple trades.

  • You can also DIY under your Home Builder License. One thing to be mindful of, is that certain inspections from council or a private certifier may be required for the job to be signed off at the end by council. The key point here is to ensure you have the proof of these inspections to pass.

Local governments are always amending the inclusions and exclusions, and other requirements for residential projects. I always recommend engaging an expert in this field, such as a private certifier, to help you navigate the specifics that apply to your job. This is really important as an unapproved landscape feature can be deemed illegal and the council has the right to make you remove it, even though you've paid for it! While it is an upfront cost, it can save you thousands for the overall project - let alone give you peace of mind.

Understanding council guidelines

One of the biggest things is to be aware of council guidelines regarding plant selection, tree heights, and water features. Some areas have specific covenants that dictate what's allowed. For example, in some estates that have either been developed by council or a developer, the council may impose covenants on the building blocks with regards to landscaping and planting guidelines which need to be adhered to, and sometimes signed off on, by council prior to an occupation certificate being issued for a new build house. On house sites, the guideline includes driveway colours, types of house façade, distances from the boundary that certain structures can be built, and any screen planting that would be required.

It’s important when purchasing a block of land to understand the possible requirements that these covenants may impose.

Practical advice to keep in mind

  • Stormwater management, soil erosion and drainage are paramount to any landscape design. The landscape design needs to take into consideration any risks (e.g., flooding or soil erosion), and mitigate the risks as much as possible through functional design. Trust me, the last thing you want to do is build a beautiful feature that floods every time it rains.

  • If you’re planning to include water-wise or sustainable landscaping practices, check in with your local government office as there are incentives from time to time. The best way to find out if there are any that could relate to you is to contact your local government office.

  • If you’re after a low maintenance garden, the plants you select are extremely important. Choose plants that either don’t need pruning, or have limited pruning needs during the year.

  • Check that all plants are suitable for your climate. Consider drought-tolerant options for hot climates, cold-hardy plants for colder regions, and appropriate species for tropical areas. Native plants are a fantastic option.