IMPASSIONED community support has failed to sway South Gippsland Shire Council administrators on the Agnes Falls lookout project.
The three administrators voted unanimously last week to adopt a report and recommendations from council’s Infrastructure Directorate to not proceed with the construction of the $450,000 cantilevered lookout and to redirect budgeted funding to other projects due to it being on Parks Victoria land.
Councillors voted unanimously in 2017 to allocate $520,000 for the project, however, that decision has now been overturned by the administrators who noted last week $59,306 had already been spent earlier this year on a detailed design for the outlook.
But in their motion last week, they voted to remove the rest of the funding from the 2019-20 budget.
The report to council said:
“As a rural Shire, South Gippsland has a limited revenue base with access to finite resources. This is evidenced by the Victorian Government’s rating review which will consider the impact of the rating system on the financial sustainability of rural councils and communities. Council needs to prioritise its capital investments and the list of projects desired by the community will always exceed the finite resources at its disposal. It is acknowledged that the project would make improvements to Agnes Falls Scenic Reserve, however given the asset belongs to Parks Victoria and the potential consequences anticipated as a result of the project, it is recommended the Council do not proceed to constructing the cantilever.”
The administrators agreed they will “support the Friends of Agnes Falls to seek alternate funding opportunities for the construction of the cantilever”.
Friends group members Kathy Whelan and Peter Lee, and former councillors Don Hill and Matthew Sherry, spoke against the recommendation during the public presentation session before the council meeting.
Ms Whelan said the Friends had distributed 35,000 promotional postcards around Victoria and interstate, and had seen an increased visitation to the Falls.
“We are absolutely gob-smacked and devastated at the decision to remove the funding,” she said.
Mr Lee told administrators he was too emotional to speak.
After moving the motion to adopt the recommendation to halt the project, administrator Christian Zahra praised the work of the Friends of Agnes Falls and their advocacy for the lookout.
He said the project had merit, however, it was more appropriate that it be funded by Parks
“It is a statement of fact that it is Parks Victoria land and this is the core business of Parks Victoria,” Mr Zahra said.
“This project will very naturally fall within their area of responsibility and direct funding and control.”
Mr Zahra said it was highly unusual for council to provide 100 per cent of funding for any such project and that to do so would create an argument that council should fund viewing platforms for other “beautiful and scenic places in the shire”.
“I have the greatest regard for the people who advocate on behalf of this project. They have great passion but this is the right thing to do,” he said.
The council also issued a statement following the decision, which said “it was considered that funding the construction of the cantilevered lookout on Parks Victoria land may set an unmanageable expectation that council would make improvements to other land and assets under Parks Victoria management”.
South Gippsland Shire Council administrator chair Julie Eisenbise said: “It should be made clear that the review on the Agnes Falls Cantilevered Lookout project was not to discredit the project, but it was necessary for us to reflect on who should be responsible for funding the project.
“The Friends of Agnes Falls should be commended for the power of work they do to promote the Agnes Falls Scenic Reserve.
“Council’s previous attempts to attract Federal and State Government grant support for this project have been unsuccessful. Council will continue to support the Friends of Agnes Falls to seek alternate funding opportunities for the construction of the cantilevered lookout.”
Council said a copy of the final cantilevered lookout design will be provided to Parks Victoria and the Friends of Agnes Falls.