FOLLOWING pressure from local landowners, South Gippsland Shire Council has agreed to delay a decision on the management of the seawalls on the Corner Inlet coastline in the vicinity of Toora.
These seawalls are located on private land abutting the coast and span approximately 55 properties. About 25 kilometres in length, the walls provide protection for these and surrounding properties – about 200 properties in total.
The management of the seawalls has been an issue for many years for Council and the landowners whom they protect. They are not an asset of Council, nor does Council own the land upon which the seawalls are built. Council’s roads do drain through the seawalls to the inlet. However, if the seawalls had not been established the water would still drain into the inlet.
In recent years the maintenance of the seawalls has been funded by levying special charges on owners in the area, and managed by a Special Committee of Council, though this committee has been largely inactive of late. Several landowners have asked Council to reinstate or resume the Special Committee. They are concerned that the seawalls require ongoing maintenance. Among their concerns are the wombats which frequently undermine the seawall and some of the owners who do not maintain their sections of the seawall adequately.
Its potential liability as a coastal council in the face of climate change has heightened Council’s concerns about its involvement in the management of the seawalls. So legal advice was sought before shire officers came up with four options for future management. They recommended the first, considering it strikes a balance between managing Council’s risk and supporting the landowners while also considering the impact on the community as a whole:
Option 1: Assist affected landowners to establish an independent Committee under the Incorporations Association Act 1981 and establish a funding scheme through a Special Charge for this Committee, for the purpose of maintaining the Corner Inlet Seawalls.
Option 2: Same as Option 1, except that Council is a member of the Incorporated Association.
Option 3: Re-establish a Section 86 Committee of Council and re-establish a Special Charge scheme.
Option 4: Council resolve a policy position that it does not have the resources to manage Seawalls.
Committee member Carmel van Kuyk made a presentation to Council last Wednesday morning, arguing that there had been insufficient time to contact all the relevant landowners and get them to attend a meeting. She asked Council to defer its decision until all the stakeholders had been consulted and the legal implications grasped.
Cr Jim Fawcett said he was struggling to grasp the point of a deferral. “Council either accepts liability or it doesn’t.”
However, Cr Jeanette Harding argued that the shire had had the opportunity to get legal advice and the landowners had not. “It’s grossly unfair…We know it’s a big problem from an insurance perspective. We should give farmers the courtesy of a chance to know all the facts.”
At the council meeting that afternoon Cr Fawcett moved that Council endorse Option 1. His motion was seconded by Cr Bob Newton.
“This is about limiting Council liability of an asset owned by someone else,” said Cr Fawcett and commended Cr Harding and Cr Mohya Davies on the work they had carried out on the issue.
Cr Davies then moved to defer a decision on the seawalls until the October 24 meeting to clarify insurance matters and consult with stakeholders. She said she felt Council had a moral obligation to honour the commitment it had made to landowners, though she realised that Council had to be mindful of issues such as climate change, inundation and insurance risks. “In a way we’ve neglected our responsibility to that committee.”
Cr Harding supported the call for a deferral. Then Cr Jennie Deane argued that the decision should be deferred to November, as it was too political a decision to vote on in October in the midst of Council elections. However, her motion lapsed for want of a seconder.
Cr Warren Raabe said, “Council does have the information and it is about how Council’s risk is managed. I like Option 1.” He, along with Crs Fawcett, Deane and Mimmie Jackson were, however, outvoted.
A decision on the management of the seawalls has been deferred to the October meeting of Council, by which time it is hoped that all the relevant stakeholders will have had time to examine the facts.