THERE was clapping and cheering from the council’s public gallery last Thursday when South Gippsland Shire Councillors voted 6:2 to formalise the use of a walking trail at Fish Creek.
But there were winners and losers with the decision.
While the supporters of the Hoddle Mountain Trail were delighted with the decision to formally open Fish Creek Quarry Road, on the edge of the Fish Creek township, as the convenient and permanent access to the picturesque trail, others were bitterly disappointed.
As foreshadowed by one of the owners of an adjoining farming property, Carl Talbot, the partner of Cr Meg Edwards, his neighbour will stop dairy farming as a result of the decision.
“Yes, the Bennett’s dairy operations have reached its breaking point and winds down now from Thursday’s decision,” Mr Talbot told the Sentinel-Times.
“Some of the herd is being sold immediately and their final milking will be in early June and the dairy is finished.
“I am disappointed, particularly for the Bennett family. The councillors who voted in favour of this have displayed a lack of understanding or appreciation for agriculture. Also of great concern was the council process and the extreme bias from council staff.
“Now ratepayers have another walking trail to fund and maintain in Fish Creek, but still a lack footpaths for kids to walk to school on. I am astounded how council can put a priority on this type of expenditure,” he said.
The seldom used road that has now been formally opened for use, divides the Bennett’s dairy farm from Mr Talbot’s land which is leased as part of the dairy operation.
However, while Cr Edwards exited the council chamber last week, declaring a Conflict of Interest, a majority of councillors hailed the decision.
Cr Don Hill said Fish Creek Quarry Road was originally a road which fell into disuse but was now required by the community.
He said the location had obviously been set up for walkers, with gating arrangements and he claimed there was no need to replace fencing along the sides of the road as had been suggested in the officers’ motion.
After walking the trail in the morning of the meeting day, he moved an alternative motion which removed the section “that fencing, gating, and signage will be erected to reduce any biosecurity risks”.
“It’s got all the features of a walking trail and has been historically used for that… I will be supporting the community,” he said.
Cr Hill acknowledged that there had been some “unsavoury” incidents that had gone on out in the community around the issue, but he was hopeful that it could now be put behind us.
Mover of the motion to formally open the road, Cr Alyson Skinner, noted there had been 65 submissions on the issue; 27 in favour and 38 against but also an earlier petition with 274 signatures in favour.
“Unfortunately it has become personal and probably could have been handled better,” Cr Skinner said.
But she said she believed it would complement the walking trail network in the shire.
The mayor Cr Lorraine Brunt voted against the motion, saying some would be pleased but others won’t.
“We’ve got two young farmers invested in farming here and we want to support them, not make it harder for them,” she said, claiming there were unresolved biosecurity issues and also that the trail project had “jumped the queue”.
“Fish Creek has a rail trail but up my end (of the shire) we don’t have anything.”
Cr Jeremy Rich was a speaker for the motion and called on council to show some leadership.
He said $4000 out of the shire’s budget wasn’t an issue to facilitate a walking trail that had demonstrated community support. He said it was a small input for a big outcome.
He also rejected there were biosecurity issues.
“If that’s the case, every road in Victoria would present a biosecurity issue.”
He said that opening rural areas to visitors actually enhanced their connection to local produce.
Cr Andrew McEwen claimed that while there were 38 submissions against, in reality, the position didn’t have genuine community support.
“In case you haven’t noticed, this area is being discovered… Cranbourne is the fastest growing area in Australia and we need to plan for it,” he said.
Cr Brown, an avid walker for fitness, said he didn’t see the Hoddle Trail as worthy of support at this stage, with a rail trail in the area.
Councillors Hill, Skinner, Argento, Kiel, Rich and McEwen voted for the opening of the road while councillors Brown and Brunt were against.
As part of the motion, council is committing to weed spraying and slashing. It will install a pedestrian counter and review the road’s usage in two years’ time. It will also develop a memorandum of understanding with the Hoddle Mountain Trail Group to establish management arrangements.