Barry O'Farrell has indicated that if the Coalition wins the next state election it will step back from Labor's policies of urban consolidation and cut the number of new dwellings to be contained within Sydney's existing footprint from 70 per cent to 50 per cent, writes legal academic Cathy Sherry in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald.

No doubt many Sydneysiders, particularly on the north shore, will be thrilled. No one wants a high-rise next to their bungalow.

Ultimately, Sydneysiders should be careful what they wish for.

The single biggest problem with greenfields development is lack of infrastructure. No roads, no sewerage, no pavements, no public transport. The easiest way for governments to fix this problem is to pass the cost on to developers, who in turn pass it on to purchasers, typically young families.

While this is an old story, it has a new twist. It is called community title, and it has long-term, irreversible implications for the way we live.

Community title is essentially flattened out strata title. When you buy a strata apartment you immediately become a member of a body corporate, bound by its bylaws, and the co-owner of the common property. Common property will probably include the stairs, the foyer, a lift and a little garden.

When you buy a house or block of land in a community title development you immediately become a member of a body corporate, called a community or neighbourhood association, bound by its bylaws and the co-owner of association property.

Unlike most strata common property, association property is extensive. It might be the streets, pavements, parks, a "village green", clubhouse, pool, tennis courts, lakes and even a marina. Many purchasers do not understand that the reason why these facilities are marketed as "exclusive" is that they will be the people exclusively paying for their eternal upkeep. Many schemes are subdivided into smaller parts so that if you buy a home in a neighbourhood scheme, within a precinct scheme, within an overarching community scheme, you will be paying levies to fund the commonly owned property in all three schemes. You will also be paying for the cost of running body corporate meetings, administration and finance in your own little two- or three-tiered governance structure.

Sydney runs the risk of doing what the United States did in the 1960s. Americans, like us, love suburban living, with large houses and yards. Rising land costs led US developers to create new ways to give purchasers that suburban life and still make a profit. They created home owner association communities where an association manages collectively owned facilities and land for residents.

Multiple restrictions mandate architectural and behavioural standards on both common and individually owned property. Many communities are gated. Think Desperate Housewives. Our community title is a legislative copy of these.

Fifty years down the track, home owner associations are an integral part of American life and a rich source of litigation for lawyers. Some people love the rules that regulate everything from Christmas lights to household composition, banning unwed mothers and group homes for the elderly. Others are not so convinced. One man, who was repeatedly fined for parking his truck in his drive in contravention of rules on commercial vehicles, borrowed a friend's World War II armoured vehicle and parked it in his drive instead. Sensibly, the home owner association backed off.

Community title developments are springing up all along Sydney's fringe and in urban infill. Community title is being used by local and state governments because much of the infrastructure will not only be privately funded at the inception, but privately maintained in perpetuity.

Purchasers are buying them because they look great. Few people seem to be aware that they are choosing to privately pay for roads, parks and pools that in an ordinary subdivision would be covered by rates and taxes. And they are still paying those rates and taxes.

Few people realise that their neighbours can collectively vote to determine the colour of their curtains, the plants in their garden or the size of their pet. If you live in a high-rise building where you can hear your neighbours cough, these kinds of rules make sense. In low-rise suburban development they are entirely dispensable.

They are being implemented for short-term financial gain for government and developers, with little appreciation of their long-term effects.

If we are going to allow more greenfields development, we must make sure that we understand the titling choices we are making, because once those choices are made, they will be impossible to undo.

A choice of community title has social, political and financial implications that will determine the fundamental fabric of our community. Welcome to Wisteria Lane.

The opinion piece can also be read on Fairfax's National Times website.

Media contact: Steve Offner, UNSW Media Office | 02 93858107 |