A BATTLE royal is brewing at the South Gippsland Shire Council table this Wednesday and this time the councillors may have bitten off more than they can chew.
At the heart of the looming dispute is a classic ‘right to farm’ standoff between farmers worried about biosecurity issues and a threat to farm safety, practices and viability on the one hand and lifestyle/tourism activities on the other.
Adding spice to the mix is the pecuniary interest of outspoken Fish Creek councillor, Meg Edwards, who fears payback from other councillors after the hard line she has taken in previous debates.
Bringing the matter to a head, during an already weighty council meeting this Wednesday, December 20, is the proposed establishment of the Hoddle Mountain Trail just east of Fish Creek.
If you have to ask, you’re with the majority – completely unaware that the shire is considering spending tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars on the establishment of a remote walking track, detouring south off the Great Southern Rail Trail, to enjoy stunning views of Wilsons Prom and Corner Inlet.
Nice idea, you might say.
But, as usual with these things, the devil is in the detail.
And one particular detail that’s infuriated several Fish Creek landowners is the proposal by the shire to open up a disused section of Fish Creek Quarry Road, through the middle of a dairy farm operation, to provide access to the planned trail.
The proposal is also having a major impact on lease arrangements for ‘Goldsmiths Quarry’, also to be considered this Wednesday (see council agenda online).
In fact, councillors will be asked to vote at this week’s meeting to commence the statutory process for the opening of that road (and splitting up the quarry lease to further accommodate the trail).
And as if that prospect wasn’t fearful enough, the shire allegedly neglected to tell the adjoining landowners that the road opening was being put to the vote at the meeting.
One of them is Carl Talbot who owns 140 acres on one side of the unused road and leases his land to the dairy farmer on the other side of the road reserve, who with his own 160 acres, needs it to make his dairy farm operation viable.
But that would be at risk, according to Mr Talbot, if the road is opened up, allowing walkers to trek up and down its 1.5km length, effectively splitting the farm in two.
Complicating the issue is that Carl’s wife, the mother of his two young boys, is South Gippsland Shire Councillor Meg Edwards, who incidentally also claims she didn’t know the matter was coming to council until she saw it in the agenda papers last Friday week.
Shire officials dispute that.
Cr Edwards has sought to stay out of the debate, due to her pecuniary interest (although it’s her husband that owns the farm) and will absent herself from the discussion and vote this week but she acknowledges it has been difficult.
In fact, she broke down in tears last week, when approached for a comment at the Community Grants presentation night.
“I can’t talk about it I’m sorry,” she told the Sentinel-Times, aside from noting her concern about the attitude of fellow councillors.
It’s not the only controversial proposal to come out of a yet-to-be-finalised ‘South Gippsland Shire Draft Paths and Trails Strategy 2017-2022’ which only went out for initial consultation last month.
The finalised strategy isn’t even due to come back to council until February next year but according to a shire official it’s exactly for that reason that the shire is running this process of elimination or inclusion on Fish Creek Quarry Road.
The shire is trying to establish whether the route for the Hoddle Mountain Trail should go up Fish Creek Quarry Road or whether ‘right to farm’ objections will rule it out and the trail should be accessed further along Fish Creek-Foster Road, using the long-established Shields Road to Beards Road.
It would appear to be a no-brainer but the process must run its course according to the shire.
Another ‘right to farm’ threat is looming with the Waratah Way shared trail proposal where key landowners are bitterly opposed to exposing long stretches of their farm boundaries for recreation.
They have previously listed biosecurity risks and fire hazards as their main concerns but are keeping their powder dry until February.
According to Mr Talbot, the shire acknowledges that agriculture is the region’s most important sector but certainly doesn’t act like it.
“I started negotiations with them back in 2015 to purchase the unused section of the road but those discussions were put on hold,” Mr Talbot said.
“A few people were already walking through there and we could see problems arising. We already had one issue where our dog followed some of the walkers back into town and bit another dog. One of the walkers also reported a downer cow on a neighbours’ farm and while he was going into town to get a treatment for milk fever, the department came out and put the cow down,” he said.
“It only had milk fever.”
There have also been times when other people have opened Mr Talbot’s gate and walked up his driveway he said, creating serious biosecurity issues especially since the introduction of stricter new rules from October 2017.
His main concern is that opening up the road will adversely impact a viable dairy operation and urges the shire to consider alternatives.
“Personally I think it’s an extreme waste of ratepayers’ money and I’ve absolutely had it with government interference in farming,” he said.
“Biosecurity problems can bring down a beef or dairy operation,” he said.
“I’ve had enough, they’re going to stuff this country and its food production.
“Who puts food on the table, the farmers or the walkers? We’ve been lucky in Australia with our supply of good food up until now but there’s a lot more pressure from city expansion and lifestyle activities.
“They’ve already got the Great Southern Rail Trail and 20 minutes down the road, the best system of walking tracks in Australia at Wilsons Prom.
“And I don’t think they’ve come clean about how much all this could cost the ratepayers. They already came out and graded the entrance to the road in preparation for this week’s vote. What was that about?
“The point is, I’m not particularly against the Hoddle Mountain Trail as such, if they want to do it, but when there’s a viable alternative route, why go to all this trouble.”
Mr Talbot has offered to buy the piece of unused road reserve in question, and to formally incorporate it into his farming operation to protect the future of the land but the shire reportedly doesn’t want to be seen to be handing over the land to a shire councillor’s husband without due process.
Once at the mercy of councillors, though, anything could happen.
Another hot topic, involving the protection of viable farm land, to be decided at this Wednesday’s council meeting, involves an application by the Trease family of Mirboo North, to cut 12 hectares off their 130 hectare farm at Mirboo North.
The council controversially voted to call that application in at its October 25 council meeting, a move that was strongly opposed by Cr Edwards.
The shire’s latest council plan has this policy as one of its guiding principles: “Our region’s agriculture, value adding, food production and manufacturing sectors are promoted and supported, recognising that the diversity and strength of these industries is the major economic base of the shire.”
Councillors will get a chance to test their resolve on this issue this Wednesday, December 20 at 2pm.
Right to farm no walk in the park