THE dispute between would-be Walkerville developer and farmer, Jeremy Rich, and the South Gippsland Shire Council, has taken a turn for the worse with Mr Rich accusing the shire of stealing his water.
It’s water, he says, that he needs for stock, crops and other farming purposes in a dry year “where every drop counts”.
But after a breakdown in negotiations, and offers of mediation by Mr Rich, the claims are now the subject of Supreme Court action.
The shire CEO Tim Tamlin has confirmed the issue is indeed the subject of legal action but he says the shire has legal advice which disputes Mr Rich’s exclusive claim over the water.
According to Mr Rich, the shire struck an agreement with his father about 25 years ago to purchase a two hectare piece of the Rich farm for a retarding basin which would collect stormwater runoff from the Promontory Views Estate.
The retarding basin land adjoins the estate but is surrounded by the Rich property.
“The land was sold partly for money and partly for the opportunity to retain all water rights for agricultural purposes,” Mr Rich said.
“But the shire also had to monitor the quality of the water, testing it six times a year.”
He has the documents to prove it, he says. But late last year, it came to Mr Rich’s attention that someone was taking water from the holding dam.
He applied padlocks to the gates, as he believed was his right, and received a phone call from Mr Tamlin to say it was the shire that was taking the water for road maintenance in the area.
Mr Rich said he thought he came to an agreement with the shire at the time that they would pay him the same rate it paid South Gippsland Water, $5.10 per kL, for the water it took from the retarding basin.
They even started providing him with the quantities in line with that agreement and he sent them an invoice in January last year, but the shire didn’t pay.
“Mr Tamlin decided that the shire did have a right to take the water and they have continued to take it since then.”
Mr Rich claimed that even after he had issued court proceedings recently, the shire continued, for another three days, to take the water.
Mr Tamlin spoke to the Sentinel-Times this week.
He rejected Mr Rich’s accusations that the shire was stealing his water.
But he did confirm that they were taking water for road making purposes.
“We are doing upgrades to local roads for the summer. We consider that we have a right to that water and if we didn’t use it, it would cost the ratepayers more money to have the water brought in from somewhere else.
“We used the water because we believe it belongs to the council,” he said.
Mr Rich has further accused the shire of reneging on a long-standing agreement to monitor the quality of the water in the basin.
And he says that due to poor runoff this year, because of the drought, the contamination coming from leaky septics in the estate is more pronounced and has raised E.coli levels in the dam to environmentally problematic levels.
The deterioration in relations between Mr Rich and the shire follows the South Gippsland Shire Council’s decision, on October 28 this year, to reject Mr Rich’s application for a planning amendment that would have cleared the way to adding a further 80 blocks to the 400-block Promontory Views Estate.
As a bi-product of the extension, a cost-effective solution would have been presented to existing residents of the estate, solving their septic problems.
According to Mr Tamlin, however, the leaky septics might now be the subject of a new shire investigation whereby individual homeowners in the estate could be up for huge costs.
Mr Rich says shire councillors were denied the opportunity to make a proper decision in October because of the lack of emphasis on the waste water and environmental issues involved.
Crs Davies, Newton, Brunt and Fawcett voted not to allow the proposal to proceed to amendment stage at the time, with Crs McEwen, Hill and Harding in favour. Cr Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks declared an “indirect conflict of interest” and Cr Kieran Kennedy was absent from the meeting.
An attempt to revisit the matter was scuttled at the December 16 council meeting when Cr Andrew McEwen withdrew a Notice of Motion: ‘That Council receive a report on the options available to the Council to amend the Local Planning Policy Framework to specifically provide support for the Walkerville Coastal Village.’
As surprising as it may sound, Mr Tamlin says he is actually in favour of the Rich development proposal which he believes offers a solution to the contamination problems at Walkerville.
And he’s not on his own.
Recently Gippsland South MLA Danny O’Brien also came out in favour of the Rich proposal saying that while he was a strong supporter of farmers’ rights, he felt this particular proposal offered a clear net benefit to the community in the form of investment and community vibrancy while also presenting a solution to the waste water problems.
“While I wouldn’t want to be seen to be interfering in Local Government, I do believe this application has merit,” he said.
Shire accused of ‘stealing’ farmer’s water