There’ll be precious little Christmas cheer for annual site holders at the shire’s Yanakie Caravan Park, and it’s a similar story at Port Welshpool, where many long-time campers are contemplating their last summer holidays in the area. Last week 20 site holders at Yanakie turned out to protest about the latest, unpopular decision by council, the removal of Cypress trees along the foreshore. Joe Price, front, accused council of granting itself a permit to remove the trees, with a hidden agenda ‘to put in council cabins’ that it could lease out for 10 months of the year. D125114
By Danika Dent
CARAVAN owners and campers at the South Gippsland Shire’s Yanakie Caravan Park, have threatened a mass exodus if the council goes ahead and removes Cypress trees from along the foreshore.
They say it’s just the latest in a string of objectionable decisions by the South Gippsland Shire Council designed to make them move or move out… but it could be the last straw.
The shire has caused similar angst at Port Welsphool’s Long Jetty Caravan Park where residents say South Gippsland is the only shire to respond to the State Government’s ‘Improving Equity of Access to Crown Land Caravan and Camping Parks 2011’ policy document with such draconian measures.
Around 20 objectors packed into the council chambers in Leongatha last Wednesday to protest council granting itself a permit to remove the Cypress trees, and other trees in the park.
A representative of the group, Joe Price, said the council had a hidden agenda in trying to remove the Cypress trees.
He said the permit was “purposely vague” and in this “controversial issue, deliberately concealing the true purpose of the permit”.
“All the reports, and our own independent arborist’s report on the trees, show there is no need to remove the trees,” Mr Price said.
“The hidden agenda is to put in a row of cabins, but in order to do that, [council] needs to remove the trees.”
The cost of this “hidden agenda” was outlined by Mr Price.
He said around 30 annual site holders would leave – taking with them $130,000 in fees and charges, while removing the trees would cost around $100,000.
“This wouldn’t even cover the cost of the new cabins – cabins that would only be open for 10 months of the year,” Mr Price said.
He warned losses and costs could even force the closure of the park.
Caravanners have predicted a “mass exodus” from the Yanakie Caravan Park over the issue.
They say the “hidden agenda” of council has eroded all goodwill and using a state policy to enforce compliance was unnecessarily cruel.
Rod Francis, an annual permit holder at Yanakie and owner of one of Victoria’s largest caravan, annex and camping accessory businesses, said the council’s crackdown using DEPI policy was over the top.
“I helped write some of the rules in the 1990s and the agreement always was that it wouldn’t be retrospective,” Mr Francis said.
“Under the policy, not one of the vans along ‘Grannies Lane’ as we call the area near the Cypresses, would be compliant.
“And I doubt those pensioners could afford the cost to comply.”
Mr Francis said it could cost the pensioners in excess of $20,000.
He said the costs would include $2000 to remove the existing annexes, $5000 for basic new vans, as the policy also states vans should be no older than 20 years, $6000 for new compliant annexes, and $12,000 for a new site.
“That’s around a $24,000 loss for some of these people to shoulder – that’s why everyone’s so furious with what council is doing there.
“It leaves people with few options if it can’t be resolved by March [when permit applications and fees are due for the 2015/16 year].
“People could: not pay their fees, be evicted by police; or just walk away.
“People will just drop their keys in the dirt and walk away. Seventy per cent will say ‘forget it’ and walk away – they can’t afford anything else.
“It will get messy, there’ll be legal fees, debt collection fees, fees to remove the caravans and annexes and thousands in lost revenue.
“I’d expect there’d be a mass exodus, of at least 60 to 70 per cent of the park.”
Mr Francis said a permit to remove the Cypress trees was a convenient way of forcing residents to move their caravans and comply.
“There’s a hidden agenda here; there has never ever been an issue with those trees before.
“From the time council came into the park [in April 2013], they’ve wanted to cut down the trees.
“First they said they were diseased and when that was disproven, they said they were a fire hazard, and now it’s a compliance issue.
“In order to cut down the trees they’ll need to remove the caravans and annexes, and once they do that then they can put in their park cabins.
“I think we’ll find that council has spent so much money on the caravan parks, they’re trying to get it back however they can.”
Following the rules
The council has said it has little choice but to enforce the state DEPI policy which came into effect in 2010.
Under the policy, all caravans and other dwellings in Crown land caravan parks must be ‘registerable’ – under VicRoads. Dwellings such as fixed cabins and other immoveable structures cannot be registered and are therefore not permitted.
“Since taking over the parks [Yanakie and Long Jetty in Port Welshpool], the council has been committed to ensuring compliance and working with site users to achieve this,” shire CEO Tim Tamlin said.
Site users have been given 12 months (from July 2014) to make agreed and documented progression towards compliance. Cabin owners have been offered the same compliance timelines, but must permanently remove their structures from the parks by September 2016.
In granting itself a permit to remove Cypress trees and other vegetation at Yanakie, Cr Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks said it was essential for council to manage its risk.
“When council formally took over the caravan parks it was because the lessee did not comply with the requirements of the state government,” he said.
“It is entirely reasonable that as we the council carry the responsibility for the caravan parks, that we the council want control.
“The trees are unsafe, they don’t comply with CFA requirements and rest on a number of cabins.
“The trees do not comply and council is entitled to deal with them and the removal of Cypress trees does not require a permit.
“As the trees are on land that is part of an Environmental Significance Overlay, a permit is required.”
Cr Hutchinson-Brooks said moveable caravans would reduce the impact of the trees’ removal on residents, but said the 2016 timeframe was generous.
The permit will effectively run for four years, and a condition written into it calls for the trees to be replaced ‘immediately’ with trees and shrubs of an appropriate ecological vegetation class.
He said allegations of a hidden agenda were unfair, and the inflammatory presentation by Mr Price accusing council and council officers of unethical behaviour did the people he claimed to represent “a great disservice”.
Yanakie and Port Welshpool timeframe
• March 31, 2015: All 2014/15 fees due and payable in full
• May 1, 2015: 2015/16 12-month site permit application process begins. This coincides with council’s budget cycle
• June 1, 2015: Completed applications to be received by council
• July 1, 2015: Budget to be adopted. Notices to vacate to be issued for those not progressing to compliance.
• December 1, 2015: Second compliance audit to be undertaken.
• March 1, 2016: Non-compliant vans from the December 1 audit to be removed.
• May 1, 2016: No cabin owners will be invited to apply for a new 12 month site permit.
• September 30, 2016: All cabins removed. Both parks to be compliant.