A NEW draft version of the South Gippsland Rural Land Use Strategy (RLUS) will go on public exhibition for six weeks following a decision by majority vote of South Gippsland Shire Council last Wednesday night.
An avalanche of submissions, including some from Councillors themselves, is both expected and encouraged, whether criticising or supporting some or all aspects of the document.
Cr Jim Fawcett, who moved the motion to re-exhibit the RLUS, observed that it had taken approximately nine years, two different Councils and “one absolutely failed attempt” to reach this stage, with the result that landowners and developers had faced a long period of uncertainty and angst.
“The real debate will occur when we adopt a version (of the RLUS) after the public submissions have been received,” he predicted.
“I expect a strong community response and urge people to avail themselves of the feedback opportunity.”
During development of the RLUS to date, much criticism has been focussed on restrictive house development and subdivision controls.
This has placed successive Councils in an unenviable position between the State Government’s insistence on specific planning controls on one hand, and a vocal community’s quite different perception over the interpretation of the “right to farm” and how best to “protect” valuable farming land for agricultural purposes on the other hand.
The time lapse has also seen two Coalition State Governments and a Labour State Government have influence on the evolving rural planning process.
STATE INFLUENCE AND DISAGREEMENT
Councillors Kieran Kennedy and Jim Fawcett reminded their colleagues that the Kennett Coalition Government initiated the stricter Farming Zone concept, which was then applied across the State by the following Labour Government.
The degree of adherence to the stricter rural development philosophy by the new Coalition Government was debated but remains unknown at this stage, although Mayor Cr Warren Raabe suggested that it was easily as likely to be more restrictive than less so.
Mayor Raabe advised that an appointment for a deputation to meet with Planning Minister Matthew Guy was being sought, and that Gippsland South Member and Deputy Premier Peter Ryan had agreed to assist Council obtain the appointment.
Cr David Lewis scathingly described the RLUS as “very draconian”, “dictatorial” and “missing an opportunity to have a flexible rural planning document.”
He insisted “the premises of the whole report are false” and that house development provisions were “so arbitrary”.
He argued that the needs of lifestylers and dairy farmers would not clash because they sought different types of land and there was no evidence that lifestylers were “anti-farming”.
Consequently, Cr Lewis felt that restrictive rural planning controls were not necessary and would lead to further rural population decline.
Believing that the new Coalition Government would be “more understanding of the issues”, Cr Lewis wanted to spend “more time to get it [the RLUS] right” rather than Council acting as “a prisoner of its own history and going down the same old route.”
Countering that view, Cr Kennedy noted that numbers of farmers in the dairy industry had been declining as a result of factors other than Council’s planning controls, and that the exhibition RLUS proposed “more flexibility than many other rural Councils” around the State.
He urged the community to “swamp us with your concerns and support” during the six weeks of feedback time.
Cr Jeanette Harding said she agreed with the arguments raised by Councilors Lewis and Newton, and called the RLUS “a heartache for many in our community.”
“For God’s sake use the six weeks and send your submissions in!” she exclaimed.
RURAL ACTIVITY ZONES
During his argument in favour of the RLUS exhibition going ahead, Cr Fawcett, pointed out that the areas proposed for further investigation for Rural Activity Zone 1 and 2 were a new approach, while Mayor Raabe referred to them as “a quantum leap that’s not been done until recently”.
Cr Fawcett suggested that the Rural Activity Zones offered, “Opportunities for alternative use and development with tourism, which will result in more money being spent in our Shire”, in a way that was not available or encouraged previously.
He reminded that Council was “obliged to go by State Planning Policies” and accused Councillors Newton, Harding and Lewis of “misusing the right to farm concept” [to approve planning permits for houses] as “culminating in the Labor Government’s actions” [to remove Council’s rural planning powers via amendment C48].
Interestingly, Cr Bob Newton stated that he had “no problem with the Rural Activity Zones”.
His view that “I can’t see for the life of me that this is a good result” was tied to his concerns with “the logic” of “the 100-acre [40 hectare] minimum” [required in the Farming Zone to develop a house without requiring a planning permit].
For smaller rural lots in areas still proposed by the RLUS as Farming Zone, Cr Newton believed “some of these small acreages are run more extensively that some of the big ones”.
At the same time, he was worried that the Amendment C51 provisions (included in the exhibited RLUS), which would allow only some smaller lots to be built on without requiring an agricultural justification, would still result in “people buying 100 acres and building a house for lifestyle but not doing anything with the land”, and in particular neglecting weed control duties.
PUBLIC INTEREST AND SUBMISSIONS
The stance of Councillors Lewis, Harding and Newton in voting against exhibition of the RLUS reflects ongoing community disagreement about State rural planning provisions, as do the number of public gallery questions and statements about the RLUS put to Council at sessions over the last two Wednesdays.
Some questions have also indicated confusion, or sought more clarification, but no member of the public has recently spoken to Council in overall support of the RLUS content.
After the submission period closes, Council’s decision also requires the feedback to be analysed (and possibly incorporated as changes) in a final version of the RLUS to be put to Council for consideration for adoption at its late August meeting.
From the public gallery, farmer and land investor Phillip Murphy challenged the prompt return of the document to Council as “seeming like it is already done and dusted”, but he also elicited from the Mayor the information that verbal submissions could be made to a panel of Councillors if the chance to do so was requested in a written submission.
Details of how to view the exhibition document, and how and by when to make submissions will be included in a separate article when Council has provided the relevant information.