SOUTH Gippsland Shire Council has strengthened its resolve to advocate on behalf of Sandy Point and Venus Bay landowners concerned that their use of land will be restricted by the abundance of domestic water bores in their townships.
Concerns have been raised by a number of members of the unsewered coastal communities, most recently on the morning of the council meeting last Wednesday, with a presentation from Ken Stranger of Sandy Point.
Under the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) Code of Practice for Onsite Wastewater Systems, Council is prohibited from approving a wastewater treatment system (septic tank) within 50 metres of a domestic water bore. The setback may be reduced to 20m if the waste water system includes secondary treatment and disinfection (and is therefore more expensive). This has been the case for many years, but only became a major concern last year, when a new mapping overlay integrated into Council’s mapping system allowed Council to more readily identify the location of bores.
Sandy Point and Venus Bay are both affected, having small blocks, no access to reticulated water or sewerage, lots of development potential and many domestic bores. As most residential blocks are around 20m x 30m (600sqm) in size, bores on adjoining properties may have a significant impact on where a septic tank can be sited.
Neil Shaw, president of the Sandy Point Community Group, raised concerns last year and then again last month, calling on Council to do something. Mr Stranger, in his presentation last Wednesday, also expressed great concern. He said that many Sandy Point blocks were at high risk of not being developed because of the distance required for the setback of sewerage systems from bores. He argued that there should be no such restriction as the water in the bores was not potable.
There followed some discussion as to whether Council could reduce the setback or not. The advice from the manager of planning and environmental health, Bryan Sword, was that Council should consider the setbacks as part of the EPA regulations and not interfere with them.
Mayor Jim Fawcett chipped in that Council would run a country mile to avoid risk, citing the case of Casey Council (which ended up having to pay millions to settle a class action by residents of an estate affected by a methane gas leak from a former landfill site). He suspected, he said, that intensive development of small blocks was likely to prove increasingly difficult unless townships took up sewerage, as Alberton has done. “I’m fearful for our smaller blocks. They will have the choice of either very expensive septic systems or getting attached – somehow – to sewerage schemes.”
“We are sympathetic, but we’re trying to manage risk,” he advised Mr Stranger.
“Could we declare Sandy Point a non-potable area?” asked Mr Stranger.
“We cannot undo what’s been done,” said Cr Fawcett. “At the end of the day it’s about risk.”
At the meeting that afternoon, however, there was some relief for petitioners such as Mr Stranger. In considering a report into the domestic bores issue, Council decided to take stronger action than initially recommended by shire officers. Explaining why he was putting forward an amendment to the original motion, Cr Don Hill said, “The original motion was restrictive about allowing Council to lobby on behalf of communities experiencing severe hardship…We hope to get satisfaction for ratepayers with these amendments.”
Thanks to the amendments, Council will write to the EPA, requesting an amendment to the EPA Code of Practice for onsite wastewater systems “to consider reduced setback distances between non-potable water bores and onsite wastewater systems”. Council will also “advocate to the EPA for alternate system design options e.g. pump out systems or ‘best environmental outcome’ options for new or alterations to existing waste water systems” and “lobby the Minister for Water and Office of Living Victoria for an amendment to the Water Act 1989 to provide greater consideration of wastewater treatment systems when assessing applications to construct domestic water bores”.
Cr Mohya Davies said that Council was strengthening the recommendations as a result of the submissions from ratepayers. “This is a very difficult issue,” she said. “No planning applications have been refused, but there have been some negotiations with neighbours regarding disabling bores. It’s a complicated issue and it’s important that Council supports ratepayers.”
Cr Andrew McEwen said the issue bore some resemblance – on a smaller scale – to the case of residents of bushfire prone areas caught up by over-restrictive building regulations, until these were relaxed recently. “We should do what we can to lobby Government,” he said.
The motion, which Council passed unanimously, can be seen in detail in the minutes of the meeting on the council website.