Phillip Island farmer Bill Cleeland chats with the Bass Coast Shire Council’s Geoff Nottle, an engagement facilitator from the shire’s planning department, about the potential for having six different land use zones in the shire. m144612

TWO subjects were declared off-limits when the Bass Coast Shire Council staged the first of its community engagement sessions last week after the release of the ‘Directions Paper’ for the shire’s Rural Land Use Strategy. Those attending the meeting at Newhaven, most of them Phillip Island farmers, were told from the outset that the issue of farm rates was “outside the scope” of the study and “may be looked at elsewhere”. They were also told that the sweeping changes to land use proposed for the State’s ‘Farming’ and ‘Rural’ zones by the Minister for Planning Matthew Guy under his Reformed Zones plan, would not be considered until such time as the new rules were introduced. However, these changes are likely to overtake the shire’s Rural Land Use Strategy process. In the latest media release from the minister, on Friday, September 14, the following statement made it clear that the land use changes are coming and coming soon: “With the ten week consultation closing on September 21, the expert advisory committee will report back to the Coalition Government by November 30, 2012, ensuring that zone reform will be in place early next year.” It’s clear from this that the Reformed Zones changes should be incorporated in Bass Coast’s Rural Land Use Strategy from the outset or it will be out-of-date even before the consultation is complete. Meanwhile, the spokesperson for the farm rate review group, Bill Cleeland, who attended the community consultation session last week, said after the session that the issue of farm rates was central to the rural land use issue and should be considered in conjunction with it. “As far as the viability of farming is concerned, especially on Phillip Island and some other coastal areas, the rate issue is number one,” Mr Cleeland said. “To give you an idea, a typical farm in the hills (on the mainland) will be rated at the equivalent of $20 per hectare while farms on Phillip Island are rated at $130 per hectare. “It shows you how extreme the differences are.” Mr Cleeland cited the case of Phillip Island’s Cadogen land, infamously removed from residential development by the Planning Minister after pressure from American actress Miley Cyrus, which he said was made unviable as a farm by the amount of rates charged. “We worked out on the Cadogen land, using DPI figures for the income from running it as a beef operation, that over 50 per cent of the income would go to council rates. “That would make the property unviable as a farm,” Mr Cleeland said. “I’d like to know what percentage of their income a business in Wonthaggi would pay in rates.” Mr Cleeland said it was all very well talking about the aesthetic value of farming land as a backdrop for tourist visitation but he claimed the level of rates being charged on farming land close to the coast was forcing people off the land or to consider subdivision for development. “I know in my case, I want to be allowed to continue farming, and the small number of farm owners on the Island want to be able to do that as well. “But everywhere we go to talk about farm rates, they tell us it’s not their responsibility.” Mr Cleeland said he was aware that the small number of affected farmers had little or no political power but he was hoping for a better hearing from the new council than the group had received from the former council. “There would only be 10 of us left with 400 to 500 acres (on the Island) but we want to keep doing what we are doing,” he said during discussions at the Newhaven meeting last week, noting that he didn’t want to look at supplementing his income with tea rooms, produce stalls and the like to pay the rates – he simply didn’t have the time. As a first step towards negotiating over a range of issues with the council and the government, Mr Cleeland said his group would be pursuing the shire’s offer of setting up a Rural Engagement Group. He said rates weren’t the only issue of interest; there was also the general issue of land use and such things as coal seam gas mining that could be addressed by such a group. However, on this occasion, at last week’s session on the Rural Land Use Strategy, the issue of rates and their impact on farm viability didn’t get to first base. It’s interesting to note that one of the responses to the initial round of consultation on the strategy had this to say about ‘Protection of the Rural Amenity’: “Well farmed land gives a ‘visual boost’ to the tourism industry. If Bass Coast Shire becomes just another bit of suburbia, tourists will not want to come.” It has also been submitted that as part of the strategy, the shire should protect agricultural land by “developing planning controls that support Bass Coast as a food bowl”. Further sessions on the Rural Land Use Strategy will be held at Wonthaggi on Thursday, November 15 at the tourist information centre in McKenzie Street and at Grantville on Tuesday, November 20 at the Rural Transaction Centre. Written submissions about the Directions Paper must be submitted by November 30. A draft of the Rural Land Use Strategy is expected to be released by April 2013.