ON THE surface, it’s a story about farming land and whether or not the owners of the land should be allowed to subdivide it however they like and use it however they wish.
In this case it’s the Treases of Mardan, Rosemary and Graham, who’ve fallen afoul of the shire’s planning rules, and more particularly, the bureaucracy’s interpretation of those rules.
But it could just as easily apply to Cr Don Hill if he was unhappy with a decision by the shire’s planning department, should he want to subdivide a rural block he owns at Mirboo North. Or any other ratepayer who owns Farming Zone land in the shire.
It’s a potentially boring story, if like most people, you don’t own any Farming Zone land.
But it’s an incredibly important issue where the protection of viable farm land is at stake, where the encouragement of genuine small-scale agricultural pursuits is at issue or where millions of dollars are involved.
And just as it was prior to 2011, when the State Government was forced to intervene after the South Gippsland Shire’s handling of subdivisions and dwelling applications in the Farming Zone got out of hand, the issue is building into a battle royal again around the council table.
Cr Andrew McEwen, for one, believes the shire’s planning department is interpreting the policy incorrectly and robbing the region of viable, job-creating, small-scale agricultural pursuits by not allowing dwellings on small allotments.
He told the ‘Sentinel-Times’ as much last Tuesday.
And he’s got his supporters on the council.
Others fear a return to the bad old days when the shire lost control of its planning scheme, bringing into conflict right-to-farm imperatives and the availability of reasonably priced broad-acre land with rural lifestylers and the speculative pressures they bring.
Those genuinely wanting to develop those garlic, olive oil, boutique wine or other home produce-type operations, that many feel represent the future away from the troubled dairy industry, are caught in the middle.
Prior to last Wednesday’s council meeting, Mrs Trease made an eleventh hour bid for council to reconsider a decision by the shire’s planning department not to grant her family’s application to subdivide off a 30 acre (12ha) piece of land around their house located at 85 Treases Lane, Mardan, leaving a viable dairy farm of approximately 130 acres (53ha).
The shire is offering them a 4.1ha subdivision.
They say they need a bigger allotment to allow a family member to take over the activities and individually they might have a case.
According to the shire’s planning policy if you can demonstrate that “there are beneficial agricultural outcomes for the land by excising the dwelling” and battle your way through another provision of the policy where “an application proposing an area of greater than 2 hectares for the dwelling lot will be strongly discouraged”, you may gain approval.
But in this case the shire has said no, based on recent decisions by VCAT.
The Treases say that by cutting off a 30 acre piece, it will allow the viable activities to continue there while protecting the water and irrigation system on the larger part of the farm.
Cr Don Hill felt so strongly that they had a case that he moved two Notices of Motion at the council meeting which followed.
The first of those motions, ultimately lost on a vote of 3:5 (Crs McEwen, Rich and Hill in favour), would have allowed the council to “call in” any application based on a majority vote, including the Treases.
But Cr Hill’s other Notice of Motion, directly affecting the Trease’s application did get through: “That council: 1. authorise the CEO to call in the application numbered 2017/78 subdivision of the land into two lots for decision of council at the 22 November 2017 council meeting. 2. Request the CEO produce an officer report…”
Crs McEwen, Argento, Skinner, Hill and Rich voted in favour.
However, since then, Cr Meg Edwards has submitted a Notice of Rescission effectively blocking action on Cr Hill’s motion until at least the next council meeting.
Cr Edwards told the Sentinel-Times that her motion is not targeting the Trease’s application, in fact she called them over the weekend to advise them of her reasons.
“Understandably they weren’t happy but the reason I’m doing it is that the debate centred on the merits of the planning application itself rather than council’s delegation under the planning scheme or the intent of council’s policy,” Cr Edwards said this week.
“The point is, are the policy settings right or aren’t they and are they being interpreted properly? That’s a discussion we need to be having before we decide to override the planning department on a specific application.
“It’s a dangerous path to be going down,” said Cr Edwards, where political and community pressure can be brought to bear on a decisions like it was with the Wooreen broiler farm.
“We employ experts in planning to make these decisions for us,” she said.
Cr Lorraine Brunt agrees and going further, she doubts there’s the planning expertise within an inexperienced group of councillors to be calling in applications willy-nilly for review.