How far above ground level can an owner of land enforce their rights of ownership?
In Janney v Steller Works Pty Ltd  VSC 363, (2017) 53 VR 677, Justice Riordan of the Supreme Court of Victoria was asked to consider the extent of a landowner's right to possession of the airspace over their land, and their ability to control entry onto their land.
The circumstances of the case were that the neighbour was proposing to interfere with the landowner's right of possession by incursion into airspace over that land through the operation of a construction crane sailing over the land at times during a proposed 11 month construction period. The proposed construction was of a four-storey building comprising 27 dwellings above a basement car park on neighbouring properties at Foam Street and Ormond Road, Elwood ("the Construction Site").
The developer served a notice purporting to protect works on the Construction Site, which included the use of the crane during the construction.
In fact, the relevant Building Regulations did not apply to the proposed crane; in any event, the landowners objected to the proposed notice, stating among other things that: "We are very concerned about the safety of our family if/when the crane boom is over our property."
The landowner and the developer engaged in extensive correspondence prior to the court proceedings. The landowner noted that they owned the airspace above their property and that the proposed crane use would be a trespass. They sought compensation to allow them to relocate to a similar property in Elwood for the duration of construction, or alternatively that construction proceed without a crane. The developer rejected this proposal.
The landowner applied for an injunction to restrain the developer from engaging in the threatened incursion.
At paragraph 28 of his judgment, Riordan J noted:
The fact that the plaintiffs’ rights as the owner of land extends into airspace is trite. On one view, the owner’s rights extend to protecting not only the land but the sky space above the land stretching the limits of the atmosphere and the soil beneath the surface down to the centre of the earth (The Latin maxim: cujus est solum, equs est usque ad coelom et ad inferos. See Bernstein v Skyviews & General Ltd  1 QB 479, 485). The issue of whether such rights are limited to the prevention of incursions that ‘[interfere] with that part of the airspace above [the] land which is requisite for the proper use and enjoyment of that land’ (Graham v K D Morris & Sons Pty Ltd  Qd R 1, 4) (such that, for example, claims in trespass cannot prevent aircraft flying over property), has been said to await a definitive ruling from the High Court (Anthony P Moore, Scott Grattan, Lynden Griggs, Bradbrook, MacCallum and Moore’s Australian Real Property Law (Thomson Reuters, 6th ed, 2016) 812 [16.140]).
Despite noting the absence of High Court authority, Justice Riordan concluded that even applying the more restricted view, the incursions of the crane, while in weathervaning mode, constituted an actionable trespass.
He set out his reasons at paragraph 30.
He noted that the case of Graham v K D Morris & Sons Pty Ltd  Qd R 1 was a similar fact situation. The judge concluded in that case that the invasion of the plaintiff’s airspace by the projection of the crane jib was a trespass and the overhanging crane interfered with that part of the airspace above the land which is requisite for the proper use and enjoyment of that land. The judge in that case also noted that any hardship which the defendant will suffer [as a result of the injunction] has been brought about by its own negligence and its cavalier and high-handed attitude.
In Anchor Brewhouse Developments Ltd v Berkley House (Docklands Developments) Pty Ltd  2 EGLR 173,Scott J granted a permanent injunction to restrain a tower crane from weathervaning over the plaintiffs' land.
Scott J rejected the defendant’s argument that there was no trespass and said:
What is complained of in the present case is infringement of air space by a structure positioned upon a neighbour’s land. The defendant has erected tower cranes on its land. Attached to each tower crane is a boom which swings over the plaintiffs’ land. The booms invade the air space over the plaintiffs’ land. Each boom is part of the structure on the defendant’s land. The tort of trespass represents an interference with possession or with the right to possession. A landowner is entitled, as an attribute of his ownership of the land, to place structures on his land and thereby to reduce into actual possession the air space above his land. If an adjoining owner places a structure on his (the adjoining owner’s) land that overhangs his neighbour’s land, he thereby takes into his possession air space to which his neighbour is entitled. That, in my judgment, is trespass. It does not depend upon any balancing of rights.
He also noted that:
It is not, in my view, accurate to say that no harm is being done to the plaintiffs by the trespassing cranes.
In London & Manchester Assurance Co Ltd v O & H Construction Ltd (1989) 2 EGLR 185, Harman J also considered a swinging crane, in that case over the Albion Wharf on the Thames. His Honour said:
It is, in my view, beyond any possible question on the authorities and the law that a party is not entitled to swing his crane over neighbouring land without the consent of the neighbouring owner.
At paragraph 32, Riordan J noted that by legislative amendments, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland and Tasmania have provided for the statutory imposition of an easement by the courts to promote land development. That has not happened in Victoria.
The Honourable Justice Riordan concluded at paragraph 33 that:
Even without the authorities, I would conclude that the weathervaning was neither a trifling nor de minimus interruption of the plaintiffs’ rights. The evidence established that the plaintiffs live on the property with their two children. This is not a case ... where the property is used purely for commercial purposes.Collapses of cranes are not unknown. I accept the plaintiffs’ evidence that the plaintiffs and their children may be well justified on leaving their home if very strong winds were forecast ... Owners of property should not have to live with the fear that at any time the boom of a crane may be above their home and the risk (however small) that it may crash down on their family.
He also concluded (at paragraph 34) that:
Neither in money terms is the encroachment insignificant. As Lord Selbourne pointed out in Goodson v Richardson, an interest in land may have ‘precisely the value which that power of veto upon its use creates’.
At paragraph 35, he concluded that:
An encroachment into airspace raises a strong prima facie entitlement to an injunction. He referred to the decision of AL Smith LJ in Shelfer v City of London Electric Lighting Co, to the following effect:
Many judges have stated, and I emphatically agree with them, that a person by committing a wrongful act … is not thereby entitled to ask the Court to sanction his doing so by purchasing his neighbour’s rights, by assessing damages in that behalf, leaving his neighbour with the nuisance, or his lights dimmed, as the case may be.
In such cases the well-known rule is not to accede to the application, but to grant the injunction sought, for the plaintiff’s legal right has been invaded, and he is prima facie entitled to an injunction.
In the result, Riordan J granted the injunction restraining the developer from allowing the tower crane to swing onto the plaintiff's land.
As the recent construction boom in Victoria has continued despite the impact of COVID-19, it seems likely that cavalier builders who wish to use construction cranes without considering the effect on neighbours may have to face the possibility that they will be restrained from those actions.
The take away from these decisions is that builders and developers who propose to construct with the assistance of a tower crane will need to ensure that they obtain their neighbours' permission for any intrusions over the neighbours' air space, prior to the commencement of construction.