A scientist wanted to develop his property and he had a very knowledgeable town planner working on his case, but zoning issues caused plenty of headaches.

His development was to be a three unit development with each dwelling set to contain three large bedrooms at the least.

It all sounded simple and achievable in the property owner’s mind, but the respected town planner would not guarantee the outcome he was seeking. Being a scientist, everything the property owner did was based on fact and to an extent logic and mathematics. But when it came to planning policies that would affect his property’s yield and outcomes, he became extremely frustrated with the responses to his questions.

Why? Because, unlike science where outcomes can be predicted based on fact and records, town planning policies are open to interpretation. And that is why some 20 per cent of town planning applications get withdrawn and many end up at the VCAT.

The planning policies which could govern the outcome of his development are really a “science.” They are numeric and quantifiable. There are numeric standards which are designed for good design outcomes – something the NSW government lagged behind in, and they are now in catch up mode. Despite the “scientific” nature of the policies, satisfying these standards alone does not assure a great outcome.

The numeric standards are underpinned by the objectives to be met. The objectives are sometimes wordy and open to interpretation. It can be subjective, which can lead to confusion and that is where the frustration would lie.

Take for example his first question: how big will the development be? In his property zone, his development can in theory cover 60 per cent of the site. He crunched the numbers and found that a 60 per cent site coverage would give him a footprint of 540 square metres. Dividing that by three, gave each unit a footprint of 180 square metres.

A 180 square metre footprint is generous and he should in theory be allowed three bedrooms over a single level, but he wished for double storey units. So if the 180 square metres was extruded vertically, each unit would in his mind yield 360 square metres of built up floor area.

This is where the frustration set in.

In this case, it was important to look beyond the “scientific numbers” and take into account other relevant criteria such as the lay of the land, the aspect and the houses surrounding his property, the existing streetscape, vegetation and built form and scale.

Based on this information, the scientist was expecting too much. Not that his “scientific conclusion” was wrong in any way, but knowing how council planning officers think, his development would likely be considered an over-development in a street yet to see much development.

The middle ring council would the resist sheer walls he was after, which are easier to build, are functional and have less wastage. The sheer walls meant the upper floor would be the same size as the lower floor.

Council’s planning officers would expect a recessed upper floor. Some councils specify how much smaller it should be – 65 per cent in his area, to be exact. That is very scientific. Others pluck a number on the day.

Then there was the question of impact on amenities of neighbouring lots and land left over for landscaping and permeable land. There were no numerics expressed as to how many trees need be planted and how tall each tree should be at maturity. Some councils will specify those numbers.

For example, one may need to plant one tree which at maturity will reach say 12 metres. We know that tree will require 100 square metres of soft soil to thrive in, while a smaller tree will require 25 square metres. Both of these soft grounds would be outside the open spaces and driveways. So suddenly we are now talking numerics and standards.

The town planner was not able to guarantee an outcome of three large dwellings on his land, and the scientist’s frustration was understandable. Maybe a different council will look at it more favourably, or maybe the elections will see a change in mood.