A FREMANTLE homeowner is fuming it’s cost him $30,000 in legal fees to push back a neighbour who’d built into his property, and he’s warned others their castles mightn’t be as impregnable as they think.
Laurie Bugeja blames most of his four-year battle on Fremantle council which he says isn’t tough enough on people who break the rules. But he’s also been tripped up by a piece of state legislation that seems to have fallen into a crack between departments.
Mr Bugeja says the problem started in 2013 when he returned from a short vacation and found his neighbour had demolished a dividing wall between their Ashburton Terrace houses in order to build a two-storey extension.
The retiree was furious to discover he’d lost an extra metre or so of land when the wall was rebuilt; while the neighbour hadn’t followed the approved plans so bits of the extension were intruding into what should have been no-mans land. An engineer’s report also found the new brick fence was structurally unsound.
Mr Bugeja lodged a complaint with the council, but says it took five visits before a staffer finally fessed up that there weren’t any plans for the fence, which was higher than permitted.
The council eventually demanded retrospective plans for the two-storey extension, but told Mr Bugeja there was nothing it could do about the fence because it was state legislation.
It turns out you’re on your own under the Dividing Fences Act, and Mr Bugeja had to take his neighbour to the Supreme Court in order to get his land back.
He won, but it was a costly battle and Mr Bugeja says that’s unfair.
“What if I’d been an old pensioner, or disabled, or a widow — if I hadn’t been able to fund the action myself there might not have been anything I could do to stop him,” Mr Bugeja told the Herald.
“People could just build on your land and there’s nothing you could do to stop them.”
And it seems the problem’s bigger than many people realise, as a lot of Fremantle’s fences were built years before the precision of laser-straight surveying, and when backyards were big enough that a metre or so wasn’t missed.
Just up Ashburton another owner tells the Herald his property’s a bit shy of what was allotted on the title, and he’s aware of a few more along the short terrace in the same boat. His could cause problems if he wants to sub-divide or build out the back, but because of the cost of challenging it, he reckons he’ll probably just grin and bear it.
Meanwhile Mr Bugeja is still fighting to get his dividing fence. In a Kafkaesque twist, the council reckons the issue has been resolved because he built a granny flat along the fence line, but Mr Bugeja says he had to move the building back because of his neighbour’s encroachments, leaving him with a long, thin gap and an unwanted view of next door.
Adding to his misery, the big lag between lodging his complaint and the council acknowledging there were no authorised plans for the wall means the Ombudsman can no longer look into the matter, leaving him little chance of ever recouping his money without another risky and expensive trip to court.
And while he’s been left with a $30,000 bill, the council let his neighbour off scot-free; it decided not to prosecute him for the unauthorised building, saying the $500 to submit retrospective plans was sufficient penalty.
by STEVE GRANT