Web_m073513IT finished as it started, when the Bass Coast Shire Council adopted its new Rural Land Use Strategy last Wednesday night, in a shambles. After years in the planning and a further three months delay to consider 269 local submissions, councillors still didn’t know what they wanted to do when the time came to vote. In fact, it was more by a process of disorganised elimination than well-reasoned logic that they finally arrived at what is an absolutely crucial policy setting for rural landowners.

The crux of the policy, which still has to go through the formal amendment stages before it becomes part of the shire’s planning scheme, is that the shire council has retained the 40ha minimum for dwellings in the Farming Zone. And after last Wednesday night’s decision, the council will seek to raise the minimum size for subdivisions in the Farming Zone to 80ha, up from 40ha, except on Phillip Island where a 40ha minimum is to be retained. Hardly anyone, it seems, went away from last week’s meeting happy with the outcome. The Mayor, Cr Clare Le Serve, who exempted herself from the debate due to contractual arrangements on a Farming zoned property she owns, would rather have seen council adopt the new State default settings of 40ha for both dwellings and subdivisions in the Farming zone. “It’s my personal opinion, after consulting with landowners, that the State default setting would have been better. I support the aim of protecting agricultural land but we’ve also got to be protecting the farmers as well,” Cr Le Serve said. On a night of important decision making for the council, the Rural Land Use Strategy was listed second on the meeting agenda between the adoption of the controversial San Remo Access Strategy and consideration of the shire’s new Inundation Overlay.

But well before debate even commenced, several landowners, in a packed gallery, quizzed council about its motives for introducing the strategy. “What proposals in the Rural Land Use Strategy will ensure better Rural and more skilful land management, better animal husbandry, better economic returns, more people earning their living from rural land or the maintenance of those skills necessary for rural land management?” asked San Remo resident and former State Planning Minister, Robert MacLellan. Another resident wanted to know what had happened to the original aim of the policy “to encourage employment, tourism and economic outcomes”. Another landowner queried the accuracy of information on the alleged value of Farming zoned land and how council had arrived at the figures used. When the time came to consider the adoption of the strategy, most councillors wanted to have a say.

Cr Jordan Crugnale, seconded by Cr Phil Wright, took a crack at the first motion, calling for a 100ha minimum for dwellings in the Farming Zone across most areas of the shire (east and north of the Bass Highway), while supporting the draft policy setting of 80ha for subdivisions. Cr Crugnale reiterated that the policy would not become law until it had been accepted by the Minister for Planning Matthew Guy, and there would be further opportunities for public submissions. “We already have a shire that has become very fragmented and this is all about how do we manage this asset and manage it properly,” Cr Crugnale said. “There’s still an 18 month process to go.” Cr Wright said he wasn’t in favour of the motion and only seconded it so his colleague could speak. He favoured passing the policy back to the Rural Engagement Group for their input. Cr Andrew Phillips foreshadowed an amendment, saying no case had been made why the State default settings of a 40ha minimum for both dwellings and subdivisions in the Farming zone shouldn’t be retained.

Cr Crugnale’s motion was put and defeated which hers the only hand raised. Crs Phillips and Brown then moved their motion, which would have set the minimum at 40ha all round but, as a result of confusion on the part of Cr Wright about what the Rural Engagement Group wanted, the motion was lost with Crs Phillips and Drew in favour and Crs Crugnale, Brown and Wright against – Cr Brown voted against a motion she had seconded. Cr Neil Rankine, who had assumed the chair for the debate, didn’t vote but later declared he would have voted against the motion. A third motion, moved by Cr Wright, seeking to defer adoption until after the Rural Engagement Group had had further input was also defeated prompting Cr Wright to ask members of the group, in the public gallery, what they wanted.

They replied they would have been happier with Cr Phillips’ motion! Having exhausted the obvious options, it was then left to Cr Rankine to come up with a compromise position; a 40ha minimum for dwellings in the Farming Zone, and an 80ha minimum for subdivisions, except on Phillip Island. Cr Wright said afterwards that while he didn’t get his motion up, he accepted the outcome. “That’s democracy at work, I guess,” Cr Wright said. Cr Rankine wrapped up the debate. “We desperately need to be protecting the large allotments in the shire.”