A ZERO tolerance crackdown on illegal dwellings, vegetation clearing, unregistered dogs and other planning breaches by the South Gippsland Shire Council has unexpectedly snared some high-profile ‘offenders’.
Among the dozens of people from across the shire, either dobbed in by their neighbours or detected by the shire’s enforcement team, are a former mayor and a sitting councillor, both accused of constructing and living in illegal houses.
They are ex-mayor, now Poowong dairy farmer, Jim Forbes, and another Poowong resident, current Strzelecki Ward Councillor, Lorraine Brunt.
Neither has been cut any slack by the council for their years of service to the community.
Nor do they expect any preferential treatment.
But according to Mr Forbes, the council’s enforcement team has gone to the other extreme in his case.
He says that it’s because he was a mayor of the shire and a councillor of long-standing that they intend to “make an example of him” and officers of the council allegedly told him as much during a 63-minute “interrogation” recently.
The shire’s CEO Tim Tamlin has rejected such a claim, saying everyone is treated the same. But he did admit that the shire often proceeded to prosecution as a deterrent to others (see his response below).
It is the “indecent haste” with which the shire has escalated its planning dispute with Mr Forbes into court action, together with its invasion of his privacy and the number of other people the shire is “harassing” that’s really got Mr Forbes’ goat.
He has accused the shire of adopting a ‘Culture of Prosecution’ in its dealings with people, many of whom are in financial straits, and called on them to adopt a more conciliatory ‘Compliance and Enforcement’ policy; one that sets out clearly for residents how the council will act when planning breaches are identified.
“Prosecution should be the last resort in my view when people have either refused to comply or to make reasonable progress with council’s directives, not the first,” Mr Forbes said this week.
He claims that the shire applied for a prosecution summons against him well before the 30 days was up for him to show cause as to why he hadn’t complied with a shire direction, first issued on April 1, 2014.
In a second directions letter, Mr Forbes was ordered to demolish the ‘dwelling’ on his Nyora Road farm by July 19 and for failing to do so, he’ll front the Magistrates’ Court this Friday, August 8.
In Cr Brunt’s case, she alerted the shire’s planning department herself to the fact that she is living in a converted dairy, on her 189 acre farm on the edge of Poowong, and has done so for more than 15 years.
“Everyone knows where I live. It’s not an ideal situation but I’m not trying to hide the fact. When we did it, we didn’t have much option and it’s a situation that a lot of people find themselves in.
“I could have said I don’t live there but that’s not my style,” Cr Brunt said.
“We’ve been paying rates based on a CIV which includes a dwelling for years and we’ve had a garbage pick-up since 2005.”
Cr Brunt freely admits she didn’t apply for a planning permit before converting the former dairy into a dwelling but believes the shire should work with people to help them comply rather come down hard, as appears to be the situation at the moment.
They’re not the only ones to accuse the shire’s enforcement team of high-handed tactics and an overly litigious approach.
Korumburra developer Joe Rossi says the shire’s approach needs an urgent review.
“It’s not the role of shire enforcement officers to be out there in the community scaring people. They should be encouraging people to work with the council to find a solution to their problems.”
Recently the shire went after a local landowner, through VCAT, in an effort to get them to pay more than $25,000 of its legal costs but the claim was substantially rejected.
Despite this, CEO Tamlin says that the enforcement program is largely break-even from a budget point of view.
In the dog house
So why are they pursuing Mr Forbes?
It’s because he keeps more than five dogs on his farming property, without a permit, and the shire is continuing with legal action despite the fact that he has since applied for a planning permit for the ‘use and development of the land for animal keeping’.
He has also registered all his dogs.
In fact he has 14 to 16 adult dogs on the property at the moment, most of them beautiful, healthy, happy, pure-bred golden retrievers, part of a breeding and dog-showing hobby he’s had for more than 25 years.
It was a random report to the RSPCA that alerted the council’s enforcement team, initially to Mr Forbes’ dogs and then to his temporary dwelling.
“Someone reported me to the RSPCA but they didn’t have a problem. They said the dogs were being well cared for.”
But the shire came down hard, directing Mr Forbes to demolish the dwelling, cease breeding dogs and show cause within 30 days.
“Since 1994, how many people do you think they have prosecuted for not having a permit to run an animal business, none. They disclosed that to me after a freedom of information request,” Mr Forbes said this week.
“Strictly speaking, this isn’t a dog breeding business. I’m a dairy farmer but I have been breeding golden retrievers for nearly 30 years and I’ve got some miniature dachshunds as well.
“They brought in a new code of practice on April 11 this year, but prior to that it wasn’t at all clear that you needed a planning permit to keep more than five dogs on a farm. I mean, how many farmers out there would keep more than five dogs without a permit. A lot I would guess.”
But it’s not just the dogs.
Mr Forbes has transported in a relocatable home on to his property while he builds a new, 32 square, four bedroom home, for which he has a current planning permit.
It’s in lieu of a caravan, is on skids and fully relocatable, he says.
“You can have a caravan or a tent while you’re building but apparently not a commercially manufactured, construction workers’ facility which I plan to incorporate into the animal development activity as a food preparation and storage area once the house is built.
“In fact the shed it goes with is set to arrive soon.”
Mr Forbes agrees that the home project has been delayed, mainly by the downturn in dairy income, but says it will be completed by Christmas.
The slab has been poured (cost $33,400), all utilities are connected including power and phone ($7750), septic tank ($3400), water tanks ($6700), driveway, garden and landscaping works.
“The permit is valid until October 2014 and I intend to apply for a 12-month extension of time, which I am entitled to, allowing me to complete the work once the weather improves.”
But the shire says no dice and according to Mr Forbes they’ve gone to great lengths and expense to develop a case against him, even to the point of visiting a local vet practice and insisting they hand over information about Mr Forbes’ dogs.
“They’ve also been out here three times, including today’s inspection. They say they have a right to come on to the property with 48 hours’ notice but it’s verging on harassment and what about my privacy.
“My concern is that they are adopting the same approach with a lot of other people across the shire, people that may have no alternative but to live where they do.
“Surely they should be trying to help people to comply.”
Cr Brunt has been ordered to return the farm building she lives in to its original state and move out or ‘show cause’ within 60 days, of which there are 40 days to go.
One of the sticking points is the pitch of the corrugated iron roof of the former dairy which the shire says should be replaced.
“A gable would do the job but it doesn’t need a whole new roof,” Cr Brunt says.
For years the shire has failed to properly monitor and address breaches of its planning scheme but since adopting a new approach to enforcement, dozens of cases have been prosecuted.
Cr Brunt acknowledges that the shire doesn’t have a compliance and enforcement policy and has echoed Mr Forbes’ call for one to be introduced that offers people a genuine opportunity to come up to the required standard.