South Gippsland Shire Council’s legacy turns toxic

THE South Gippsland Shire Council looks set to leave behind it an expensive legacy when it departs the scene in October this year, potentially costing several hundred thousand dollars to fix.
Blotting its copybook of achievements is a looming environmental mess which they’d prefer the community knew little about so close to a once-in-four-year election.
In fact, with the ‘Caretaker’ period little more than a month away, when no meaningful decisions can be taken by the present administration, it has been seeking to quietly settle a legal dispute with the adjoining landowner and water rights holder, Jeremy Rich.
That too is set to cost the shire plenty.
In fact, the only reason that the parlous state of the retarding basin, below the Promontory Views Estate at Walkerville, has come to light at this late stage, as well as the prospect of a legal settlement, is that Mr Rich is running for council.
Having announced his intention to stand for election in the Coastal Promontory Ward, against present incumbents Mohya Davies, Jeanette Harding and Kieran Kennedy; Mr Rich was quizzed about his reasons for standing and also his dispute with the shire over the retarding basin.
“People might say that I am running for council to get my development through but the reality is that I’ll be less likely to get it through because I won’t be able to vote for it myself,” Mr Rich said this week.
“What I am looking for is a better approach to attracting business and investment in the shire, and ultimately jobs for our local young people.
“Take Leongatha for example. It used to be the biggest and best town in the region but look at it now with shops vacant and a bypass that’s not going to do the job it’s supposed to do.
“The most successful town in South Gippsland today might well be Meeniyan and we need to be encouraging all our areas to grow, not just the two or three main towns.”
Mr Rich said he believed the shire was anti-business and dysfunctional, that it pandered to a vocal minority, was obstructionist rather than helpful to those who wanted to build and invest and tried to bully applicants into submission.
His own development, the multi-million dollar Walkerville Village project, he said, was a case in point.
“It has never been our intention to fight with the shire. We have endeavoured to do everything possible to come up with win:win solutions to local problems. In our development application we listened carefully to the feedback from council planners and councillors and invested in solutions that addressed the range of the issues that were specifically raised,” Mr Rich said.
“Storm water and waste water management were two key issues raised and were therefore key attributes of our proposal. We investigated and proposed economically evaluated solutions to the existing waste water issues in the adjoining Promontory Views Estate. We also proposed a best practice solution to the storm (grey) water issues in the estate and met with the shire’s CEO to discuss working collaboratively on the storm water solution. The CEO indicated that we should work on the storm (grey) water issue separately to the development proposal.
“The shire never responded further on the solution discussed, instead their response was adversarial and confrontational in nature as they decided to take water from the basin and ‘interpret’ the existing agreement we have with them in such a way that the shire was of the ‘opinion’ that they could take the water from the PVE basin dam for the purposes of road building whenever they liked.”
Mr Rich said it was clear in the original agreement with the shire that while they owned the land, use of the water belonged to the Rich family, with the shire also required to maintain the quality of the water so that it could be used for irrigation, stock and domestic purposes.
“We have always been prepared to settle, to sort this out but it’s got to the stage now where the water is so contaminated (with e coli run-off from hundreds of Promontory Views septics), that the dam will have to be drained and the bed excavated, at the shire’s expense, to deal with the contamination.”
Mr Rich estimated such work could cost several hundred thousand dollars, on top of paying his and their own legal expenses for a dispute that need not have taken place.
The shire was reluctant to comment with a settlement pending but agreed to make the following statement, attributed to the CEO Tim Tamlin:
1. Council can confirm that it has been in negotiations with Ansevata (the Rich family company) to settle a legal proceeding initiated by the Rich family.
2. The dispute itself it is a legacy issue for the Shire and relates to an agreement made over 25 years ago, where the then Council paid full market value for some land, purchased from a Rich family company, on which the Council built a drainage basin to service the adjacent Prom Views Estate.
3. The agreement for the land sale included a right for Ansevata to take storm water (not treated water of any kind) from the drainage basin at no cost. In recent years the Council used some of this water for local road works and Ansevata took issue with this asserting it was entitled to all of the water (regardless of whether it used it or not) and have also raised concerns about the quality of the water which it can use for pasture and stock watering.
4. Ansevata initiated the proceedings in the Supreme Court seeking declarations as to the exact meaning of various parts of the agreement.
5. Whilst the parties have entered into negotiations, the matter has not yet settled. The Council will continue to seek to settle the proceeding to achieve a satisfactory outcome in terms of cost to the community and the interests of all affected parties.
The shire did not comment on a question raised by the ‘Sentinel-Times’, asking if it was well qualified to be managing water resources.
Mr Rich says the dispute over water, initiated by the shire, need not have occurred in the first place and while he remains committed to settling the issue, he says it has been a waste of the shire’s time and the ratepayers’ money.
“When it comes to an issue of water rights, of course a farmer is going to be prepared to fight. It’s the lifeblood of your operation and you need to be making full use of it,” he said, noting that he has plans to further develop food production at the property, beyond the establishment of the Walkerville Vineyard which produced its first wines in 2013.