farmersmeet_2213The hands go up in unanimous opposition to the Bass Coast Shire’s draft Rural Land Use Strategy.

THERE was furious agreement at a packed public meeting in Kilcunda last Thursday night that the Bass Coast Shire Council should scrap its draft Rural Land Use Strategy and either confirm the status quo or go back to the drawing board. Reasons given included: The failure to substantiate the need for the change, devaluation of farming land, the imminent introduction of new State controls, lack of understanding of farming as a business in Bass Coast and a lack of information about the local laws that will go with the draft policy. But precious few of the seven councillors who’ll make the ultimate decision, and none of the shire planners and consultants responsible for the draft strategy, were present in the Kilcunda Hall to hear the farmers’ concerns. Mayor Cr Clare Le Serve attended and seemed impressed with the points made; her colleague, the Deputy Mayor, Cr Neil Rankine less so. But at least he was there. Crs Brown, Crugnale, Drew, Phillips and Wright did not attend. When called on to speak, after several experts in the field had given their presentations, Cr Le Serve gave her guarantee that the policy “would not go ahead in its present form”. “I would encourage you all to write a submission and by all means ask Ken Smith and the Planning Minister to speak to you. “But, like you, I didn’t milk cows for 20 years to be told what to do with my land.” The comment was warmly received. Cr Rankine’s response was more functional. “Every submission that comes into us will be considered,” he said. Clearly the landowners’ lobby still has a long way to go to convince a majority of the councillors that they have it wrong and the fact that few of the decision makers were there on the night to hear both the strength of feeling around the issue and the good arguments against the draft policy, isn’t a good sign. Between 200 and 300 people were in attendance and it was noted that they represented the vast majority of the privately owned farming land in the shire. Former State Planning Minister, Robert Maclellan, nowadays a San Remo landowner, got to the nub of the concerns very smartly – along the lines that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. He questioned if the shire and its consultants had done the appropriate research to back up their claims that a higher level of protection, moving from a40ha minimum for dwellings, to 100ha/250ha, was needed. “I’d like to know how many houses have been built on Farming land. That’s supposed to be one of the main the problems they are trying to address here isn’t it but I couldn’t see where the number was provided in the report,” Mr Maclellan said. “The shire should be able to make that figure available. How could it be a problem if, for example, only five houses are being built-a-year in the Farming zone?” he said. Independent planning consultant, Peter Toole of Beveridge Williams, noted that the report listed that 212 planning permits were issued for dwellings in the Farming zone between 2008 and early 2013 but this did not cover the unknown number that had been built in the Farming zone on land above 40ha. “There is no justification given (for the higher minimum) because these (212) are already controlled by the present 40ha minimum,” Mr Toole said. “We don’t know how many more (houses) there have been,” he said. Others asked why the shire’s planners and consultants weren’t there to answer such questions. “Who is running this show? Is the council running the council or are the planners running the show?” asked one of the local farmers.

Don’t know the answer: The fact is the shire does not know how many dwellings have been built in the Farming zone, on land above 40ha, or if there is even a problem. In the absence of the shire’s consultants and planners at the meeting, the Sentinel-Times asked the shire the following questions this week: Question 1: Has any research been done to identify how many dwellings have been built on Faming zoned land above 40ha in the Bass Coast Shire (i.e. not requiring a planning permit)? Answer 1: “We have identified there are 2595 dwellings outside of the proposed Settlement Boundaries; this is not specific to the lots that are bigger than 40ha. We are currently mapping this spatially so it will give an indication of where the dwellings are located,” said a shire spokesperson. Question 2: If so, how many dwellings have been built on farms/titles over 40ha in size in that time frame (or any other relevant to the research). Answer 2: “This has not been investigated.” The shire also noted that the 212 houses on its books, from 2008 onwards, as being approved for the Farming zone, may not be limited to lots under 40ha in size. Planning permits for a number of them were “triggered by an overlay or other planning mechanisms”, that is they may be on land above 40ha.

Speakers say ‘no’: There were three main speakers on the night including Peter Toole from Beveridge Williams, who gave the local perspective, actually praising the shire’s planning department for its management of Farming zoned land up to this point. He said there was no justification for the policy change. Jacob McElwee, the VFF Land Management Policy Advisor, gave a statewide perspective, specifically how the landholders of Wangaratta shire had forced the council to back down on a similar 250ha minimum proposal, also put up by RMCG, the consultants involved in Bass Coast’s strategy. Phillip Island landholder and local real estate agent Greg Price was the other speaker, highlighting his concerns about the impact on land values if the draft went through and also claiming the so-called Rural Land Use Strategy did nothing “to support agricultural activities and associated rural industries that will maintain and build on the economic base of the shire” as the report set out in its key aims. “This report talks about landscape, landscape, landscape; not farming. It’s all about you looking after the landscape for the tourism sector. It’s not about running a farming business,” Mr Price said. “How would you value a farm if you couldn’t live on it?” He said he’d asked the consultants and shire planners if they were trying to drive down farm values with the policy and he alleged they said “yes”. “Why are they meddling in and being destructive towards an asset that has taken generations to build. “How many people live on farms that are 250ha in size or 617 acres?” he asked, turning to the crowded hall. There were no hands raised. “What they want is control of our entire shire so you have to go and ask what you have to do to build a house, but why 250ha or 100ha? That’s what the town planners want.” Mr Price said that by calling in all applications for dwellings in the farming zone the shire was dooming applicants to delays, possibly years of delays with the system open to bias and inconsistency. It was a claim that independent planner Peter Toole had supported in his address, saying that different planners could adopt a different approach to approvals once a 250ha minimum, with strategic aims, had been introduced. Mr Price said also that the report had a lack of understanding about how farming was carried out in Bass Coast where small properties still turned off beef and other produce, often augmented by income off the farm. He said consolidation of land into bigger farm sizes might help the corporate farmer but not the family farmer and the local community. He said the landholders were really “up against it” trying to convince the shire’s planners about the damage that could be caused by such a policy but he urged everyone to make a response. “You’re both ratepayers, so you should be both making a submission,” he urged husbands and wives at the meeting Bass Coast VFF President Bill Cleeland and the Mayor Cr Clare Le Serve also made brief addresses. It was left to another former State MP, Allan Brown, also a farmer south of Inverloch to wrap up proceedings by speaking to a motion, moved by Ventnor farmer Ewan Cameron, “to reject… the draft Rural Land Use Strategy”. He said the impact of the draft policy would be to force more planning applications to be assessed by the shire. “How many people have made applications to the shire in recent years? he asked. Many people put up their hands. “How many were satisfied with the outcome and that it was attended to in a timely manner?” Three. “I know of applicants who have been trying for five years to get applications through and it has cost them a huge amount of money,” Mr Brown said. “We’ve already heard that the shire is going to be sued because they’ve failed to deal with a planning application for a major land development in a timely manner. “Is this reasonable, fair and necessary? No. There is no valid reason why it should go beyond where it is today,” he said.

Follow this link to the shire’s website for more info: