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‘Party house’ crack-down

Geoff Helisma | As NSW councils await the state government’s formulation of a short-term holiday letting policy (STHL), Clarence Valley Council (CVC) will soon “commence a program of community education for a period of 3 months, focusing on the canal area of Yamba”. However, “where substantiated”, CVC will “take enforcement action … where serious community impacts including neighbour disputes or conflicts (party house) are alleged”. At the March 20 CVC meeting, councillors were split on an extensive motion put by Cr Andrew Baker, which, among its strategies, nominated a wider, more expensive and detailed education program that included reference to the “power of Council to take action against those responsible for non-permitted use of R2 Zone land where neighbourhood conflicts occur due to that non-permitted use” and other ongoing methods of enforcement and education advice. However, only councillors Karen Toms and Debrah Novak supported his motion. Instead, following close to two hours of questions and debate (mostly on Cr Baker’s motion), councillors modified the officer’s recommendation, limiting the education program to three months, instead of until the NSW Government adopts a policy. What constitutes a ‘party house’, is outlined in a precedent-setting court case, Dobrohotoff v Bennic, from which councillors were advised, as an example: “In this case it was deemed that the use of a dwelling house to involve bucks and hens parties, frequent use of escorts and strippers was not consistent with how a family or group household would occupy or use a dwelling house.” Other legal advice to councillors was confidential. The report suggested that in most cases “where occupants … use the house in such a way that does not create conflict with permanent residents”, enforcement action was not necessary and, as a result, only “premises that are being let for the purpose of a ‘party house’ and are causing significant impacts to the amenity and social cohesion of the neighbourhood”, should be pursued. In coming to their unanimous decision, councillors were advised that gathering sufficient evidence to support a prosecution challenged in court would cost around $5,000 (as per their decision), however, community planning and environment director Des Schroder warned it could cost as much as $10,000. As well as the $5,000 figure, councillors also noted that a prosecution challenged in court would cost “a minimum of $30,000”. The council’s general manager, Ashley Lindsay, told councillors that there are about 1,500 properties registered with real estate agents available for short-term letting. Meanwhile, in September 2017, various property owners received letters stating: “If you are undertaking any unauthorised use of the dwelling, you are requested to cease the use or contact Council to discuss your situation.” The letter cited fines of up to $3,000 for individuals and $6,000 for corporations. At the October 2017 council meeting, councillors rejected a recommendation to take enforcement action as a result of those letters – instead, voting to wait for the NSW Government’s policy decision. At last week’s meeting, Mr Lindsay told councillors that the letter, sent to “some 150 or so properties” had received “various responses”: some said they would stop, others said, “well come on, we’ll take you on if you want to take us on”. Mr Schroder told councillors that 13 complaints had been received since December 2017, emanating from two houses, of which he said one is “going to court”. The other house, he said, had changed from short-term to long-term letting. The NSW Government is currently considering submissions to its short-term holiday letting options paper; a finalisation date has not been set.