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An easy-to-understand guide to planning overlays in Australia

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couple checking planning overlays

Before buying a new house or renovating an existing home in Australia, you should check if planning overlays apply to the property. Properties covered by certain overlays have extra development requirements. Not only that, a property’s overlays can help you choose the ideal building design and the materials you can use for construction.

In this guide, we’ll help you understand the most common types of planning overlays in Australia. We’ll also help you understand how they affect your future home renovation or new build project.

Let’s start!

male land surveyor inspecting site

Zoning and planning overlays explained

In Australia, properties are covered by zones and overlays that show the planning controls for each property. They indicate how the land can be used and developed.

All properties (except federal land) belong to a specific zone. For example, residential zones show that a certain piece of land should be used for housing. Meanwhile, industrial zones indicate that the land is better used for building factories and warehouses.

Unlike zoning, overlays don’t apply to all parcels of land in the country. They’re only used when the land has a special feature that must be protected or if the area is prone to natural disasters like floods or bushfires. 

Planning overlays help you identify the risks and factors that affect land use and development. They also help ensure that new developments don’t negatively affect existing properties.

What’s the purpose of planning overlays?

Overlays aim to identify areas that:

  • are sensitive to the effects of development (e.g. areas that are prone to erosion)
  • are rich in valuable resources or vegetation
  • present opportunities for developments
  • constrain development

How do planning overlays work?

Overlays are made up of two parts:

  • Special development requirements
  • A map showing where the requirements apply

Overlay requirements rank above zone or neighbourhood requirements. In other words, you should follow overlay requirements even if they are inconsistent with a development code, zone code, or neighbourhood plan code.

How do planning overlays affect your construction project?

Before starting a home construction project, you will likely need to submit a planning application to your local council. They can approve or reject your proposal depending on where your property is located, the land’s unique features, and your building design.

In some cases, planning overlays will apply to your property. Depending on the overlay, you may encounter the following constraints:

  • Physical limitations: You may be required to follow specific guidelines to mitigate the effect of natural disasters like flooding. This usually applies to building heights.
  • Sensitivity to particular impacts of development: You may be required to follow regulations regarding removing vegetation or disturbing land in a certain area. This is especially important if you plan on doing landscaping.
  • Buffers or setbacks: You may be required to follow wider setbacks to make way for essential infrastructure like sewage lines or treatment facilities.

At Superdraft, we can help you find land surveyors and building designers who can provide useful advice on your planned development. Get a free quote now!

checking land for planning overlays

Common planning overlays in Australia

Here are some planning overlay definitions you must know when building or renovating a property in Australia. Keep in mind that these are only general definitions, and more specific guidelines may exist for your property. You may contact your local council for more information about applicable overlays.

Vegetation protection overlay (VPO)

VPOs are designed to protect existing vegetation, encourage the growth of native plants and trees, and maintain the habitats of local wildlife. In areas with this overlay, there are limits to the type or size of vegetation you can remove. 

In some cases, you will need a planning permit to remove or destroy vegetation higher than 10m or with a trunk circumference greater than 50cm at 120cm above ground level. Some exemptions may apply to dead vegetation and certain tree species, such as all types of willows.

A landowner who wishes to cut down trees may consult an arborist for advice. Cutting down trees illegally can result in fines or legal action. In some cases, your council may help you get free arboricultural advice.

Significant landscape overlay (SLO)

A significant landscape overlay is used to show that the area has a specific landscape that the local council wants to protect. It aims to preserve the aesthetic qualities of mountains, wooded hills, and farmlands. 

If your land is covered by an SLO, you will likely need a planning permit to construct a building, build a fence, or remove vegetation.

Environmental significance overlay (ESO)

This overlay indicates that the area has environmental significance. Like an SLO, an ESO aims to protect local vegetation and wildlife habitats. In this case, your council may request that you include all existing trees in building plans. Any proposal to remove trees should be independently reviewed by an arborist.

If your land is close to a creek and is covered by an ESO, you may also need a planning permit to construct a building or pave land. This helps improve the quantity and quality of stormwater entering the creek.

Design and development overlay (DDO)

This overlay indicates the preferred design or development in an area. It sets requirements for the height, general design, from, and style of buildings in a specific place. It also sets a limit to the number of houses that can be built in an area. This type of overlay is common in highly urbanised areas.

To ensure that your house or building adheres to local development standards, you need a skilled and knowledgeable building design or drafting professional. At Superdraft, we help you find competent and qualified professionals near you. Sign up for our 100% free platform now!

Heritage overlay (HO)

A heritage overlay indicates that the property has heritage value. This applies especially to older homes that have natural or cultural significance. If you own property covered by a heritage overlay, you will need a planning permit to do the following:

  • Subdivide land
  • Make renovations to a property’s exterior
  • Display signs
  • Paint unpainted surfaces
  • Demolish or remove a building
  • Uproot or cut down trees

In rare cases, you may also need a permit to do interior renovations or repairs at a property covered by a heritage overlay. Check the “schedule” section of the overlay if it includes internal alternation controls. 

Heritage overlays usually include heritage gradings. The higher it is, the fewer changes you can make to the property. Each heritage building can be defined as:

  • Individually significant: This is the highest heritage grading. It applies to properties that are deemed individually significant and contributory to the precinct.
  • Contributory: This means that the property, while not individually significant, contributes to the heritage precinct it’s located in.
  • Not contributory: This is the lowest grading. It means that the property is not individually significant nor is it contributory to the heritage place. Still, they are included in the overlay because they may impact the heritage significance of the precinct.
victorian houses covered by planning overlays

Erosion management overlay (EMO)

The erosion management overlay indicates that a specific parcel of land is prone to landslip issues. Usually, homeowners or developers are required to hire a geotechnical engineer who will prepare a geotechnical report. This report should show that the construction will not cause stability issues and should also provide recommendations to minimise risk.

Special building overlay (SBO)

This overlay identifies areas that are prone to overland flows from the underground drainage system. It ensures that any new construction maintains the free passage of floodwaters and is compatible with local drainage conditions. Any new development should also not cause a significant rise in flood levels or flow.

To achieve these goals, special building overlays include conditions and floor levels to mitigate damages due to floods.

Land subject to inundation overlays (LSIO)

These overlays apply to land areas that are prone to flooding due to waterways and open drainage systems. These usually apply to floodplains.

Any new developments in an area covered by an LSIO should be consistent with the local floodplain development plan.

Floodway overlays (FO)

These planning scheme controls apply to areas with active flood flows associated with waterways and open drainage systems. It’s specific to areas where floods exceed one metre.

Urban floodway zone (UFZ)

UFZ affects both land use and development. Land use is usually restricted to recreation and agriculture and development is usually not encouraged.

Bushfire management overlay (BMO)

This overlay indicates that the area is prone to bushfires. In this case, a fire management assessor should visit your property to evaluate the risk of bushfires damaging your property.

The assessor will give your property a Bushfire Attack Level (BAL) rating and issue a report that includes recommendations on how you can mitigate risk. These recommendations may include removing vegetation or using building materials that protect homes from bushfires.

bushfire protection planning overlays

Acid sulfate soil overlay

Acid sulfate soil contains iron sulfides. When disturbed, these soils release sulfuric acid, which may cause harm to animals and plants. The acid may also damage existing structures.  Acid sulfate soil is common along the NSW coast. 

Acid sulfate soil overlays include risk maps that predict the following:

  • chance of acid sulfate soil occurring
  • the estimated depth of the acid sulfate soil
  • the environmental risk associated with disturbing the soil
  • landforms where the soil is present

Building infrastructure, dredging, and laying utilities may all trigger acid sulfate soils to produce acid. As such, a permit is required to do these activities. In some cases, treating acid sulfate soil is necessary before any other activity is conducted. 

Public acquisition overlay (PAO)

This overlay is used to show that the land may be acquired by a public authority in the future. It will also specify what the land will be used for. For example, lands under PAO may be reserved for:

  • Road widening projects
  • Intersection upgrades
  • New road projects

If you want to build structures on land covered by PAO, you will need to get a planning permit. It’s also imperative that you contact the Department of Transport before lodging your application. 

If the DOT acquires your land in the future, you may be entitled to claim compensation.

How to check if planning overlays apply to your property

Before starting any type of construction on your property, you should check if an overlay applies to the land. Check the overlays section on your local council website.

An overlay may apply to all or only part of your property. Some areas may also be covered by several overlays.

Keep in mind that local property owners are not notified directly of any proposed changes to overlays. You will have to check the Council’s website for any proposed changes and associated mapping.

How do you know if you are following overlay requirements?

If your land is covered by an overlay, read the details of the relevant overlay carefully. Check if your planned development will be permitted. If all is good, you can start preparing the requirements for planning approval.

If the council approves of your plans, they should issue a planning permit. A planning permit is a legal document that shows you are allowed to use a certain parcel of land in accordance with existing legislation and town planning schemes. In most types of home renovation or new build projects, a planning permit is required before you can get a building permit.

What if you don’t check planning overlays?

If you don’t research applicable planning overlays, you run the risk of buying land that’s not suitable for your planned project. If you’re a property owner, you may not be able to build your dream house or you may have to make significant changes to your initial building plans.

home renovation before after

Start planning your home renovation or build now

At first glance, overlays may seem like impediments to your construction project, but they are there to protect you and the neighbourhood. It’s important to research applicable overlays and adhere to them so that your project can move forward smoothly.

At Superdraft, we can help you assess the requirements you need to get approval for your new build or renovation project. We can also help you with the following:

  • Find a reliable building design or drafting professional who can create detailed house plans
  • Visualise the outcome of your project using 3D technology
  • Get matched with a dependable builder that can make your vision come to life
  • Manage and monitor the progress of the project with a user-friendly project planning dashboard

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