PRESSURE from the people has encouraged the shire to think again on the hard-line stance it was threatening to take on a fire refuge at Sandy Point and the boat ramp at Toora.
Much to the relief of the communities concerned, stays of execution were effectively issued for both projects at last Wednesday’s meeting of South Gippsland Shire Council.
Subject to approval from the Department of Transport, Toora will have a further four months – until December 26 – before money provided for the Toora Boat Ramp Access Channel Dredging Project is removed and allocated elsewhere, while at Sandy Point the timelines for the Neighbourhood Safer Place/Place of Last Resort recommended for this town of high fire risk are even longer.
To begin with Sandy Point
Last November Council received notification from the Fire Services Commissioner of a grant of $251,640 to support the establishment of a Neighbourhood Safer Place/Place of Last Resort (PLR) via acquisition of private farm land at Sandy Point. This was because Sandy Point was among the 23 Victorian towns (of the 52 originally identified as high fire risk) which had not yet been able to identify a suitable PLR.
Since then the CFA has continued to assess but reject any suggestions as to suitable sites for a PLR.
Financial considerations relating to the ongoing maintenance of a PLR (supposing a suitable site could be found, which was looking increasingly unlikely) and the belief that the quarter of a million dollar grant was only available to the end of this financial year, prompted shire officers to recommend to Council that it seek approval from the Fire Services Commissioner for reallocation of the funding. The shire officers recommended a portion of the funding go to community education, their reasoning being that there are three other towns in the shire identified as high risk – Waratah Bay, Walkerville and Venus Bay – none of which have a PLR, and residents should be encouraged to take responsibility for their own safety.
Sandy Point resident Neil Shaw was appalled when he saw this recommendation on the agenda of Council’s June 22 meeting. He wondered whether there were others who shared his disappointment and decided to call a meeting, even though by then it was only a matter of days before Council met. Despite it being the depths of winter, Dr Shaw cycled around Sandy Point, speaking to as many residents as possible and inviting them to come along to the T.P. Taylor Hall the next day – Sunday June 19 – at 2pm for discussion of the matter.
Dr Shaw was surprised and delighted when as many as 60 people turned up to the hall, despite the short notice. He said the mood was one of disappointment that the establishment of a fire refuge of some sort in Sandy Point was basically being put in the ‘too hard’ basket.
“We have a responsibility to provide something for those people who [in a fire situation] can’t get to the beach or get away,” he said, adding: “We are looking to responsibly react to a directive from the Commissioner.”
He acknowledged that Council had tried very hard to come up with a range of locations only to have them all rejected as unsuitable by the CFA.
Sally Gibson was among the Sandy Point residents at the meeting. She noted in her ‘Sandy Point Snippets’ column in The Mirror: “The meeting felt that while other coastal towns in the vicinity also needed Places of Last Resort that was no reason to turn down what is a large amount of money which is unlikely to be offered again.”
It turned out to be a crucial meeting for the people of Sandy Point.
Councillor Mohya Davies attended and was detailed to relay back to Council the meeting’s resolve that Council should continue to consult with the community and key expert agencies until it came up with a viable PLR, that the CFA “should offer details of what would constitute an acceptable Fire Refuge and actively assist in the process of identifying a site(s); and to develop a model or template that could be used for other similar towns”.
Significantly, as a result of the strong views expressed at the meeting, shire officers were prompted to contact the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV), which has been driving the establishment of PLR for the Fire Services Commissioner. It was discovered that the Fire Services Commissioner has taken charge of the funding and its allocation is not bound by a June 30 deadline.
At Council on June 22, Cr Davies spoke eloquently about the keenness of the Sandy Point community to be consulted and considered and see something in the way of a fire refuge at Sandy Point. She moved the following motion:
- Write to the fire services commissioner detailing the difficulties in identifying a suitable Neighbourhood Safer Place/Place of Last Resort site at Sandy Point and as a consequence seek an extension of time to identify a Country Fire Authority compliant site.
- Liaise with the Fire Services Commissioner regarding the best means to hold over the offered allocation $251,640 so that it remains available for future use by Council.
- Having identified a suitable site and obtained a compliant fire rating site assessment, then prepare a detailed implementation plan for MAV and Fire Services Commissioner endorsement.
- Utilise the Sandy Point process as a template for achieving a PLR in other identified high risk towns within the South Gippsland Shire; and
- Write to Hon. Peter Ryan MP Minister for Police and Emergency Services advising him of our position and requesting his support in establishing NSP/PLR for the communities which have been identified as at risk.
Council passed the motion unanimously.
“I am delighted that it looks like we will have a good outcome,” said Dr Shaw when he heard the news. “However, there is still lots of work to be done, working with the CFA to find an appropriate location for some sort of a Neighbourhood Safer Place at Sandy Point.”
Toora Boat Ramp
Victory was sweet, too, for the lobbyists on behalf of the Toora boat ramp.
It was David Scammell, a member of the boat ramp committee, and Rachel Brown from Toora Tourist Park who, at the shire’s public presentation session on Wednesday morning, argued the case for dredging the access channel to increase the usability of the boat ramp. They were far from alone, however, with a dozen or more people seated in the gallery behind them, having specially made the trip to Leongatha by coach from Toora to show their support.
Dredging the access channel to the boat ramp so that the hours of use of the ramp can be extended is proving to be an extremely costly exercise, once all the environmental considerations required by government at federal and state level are taken into account.
With the dredging still only in the planning stage and the bill for the works not getting any smaller, the recommendation to Council – up for discussion at last Wednesday’s Council meeting – was that all work on the project cease and that funding allocated to the project by the Department of Transport be reallocated to the upgrade of the car park at Port Welshpool boat ramp.
Mr Scammell outlined the history of the boat ramp and its importance to the Toora community, many of whom had worked hard – and voluntarily – to prepare the associated infrastructure, such as the car park. He said that for a long time after the access channel was first dredged in 1992 the boat ramp was used extensively and it was recognised as one of the best and safest ramps in regional Victoria.
Ms Brown said that the boat ramp was a significant part of the shire’s tourism infrastructure, with many people coming to the district to fish or go boating. She said that without further dredging of the channel access was too limited – only an hour or so either side of high tide – which made planning boating trips problematic. Reallocating money to Port Welshpool was no answer – the boat ramps are already too busy and enlarging the car park there would only encourage further congestion. She implored Council not to give up on the Toora project, saying that instead the project should be seen as a marketing opportunity to attract more tourism dollars to the shire.
Capping these persuasive arguments was advice from Cr Jeanette Harding that she had had promising talks with members of the new state government. She elaborated at the Council meeting that afternoon, explaining that after speaking to Peter Ryan MP she understood that the new government was willing to extend the August 26 deadline for spending the Department of Transport grant on the Toora project to the end of the year, wanting time to look into the project and see what could be done.
She moved that Council request the Department of Transport extend until December 26 the deadline for reallocation of the unpaid grant into another project and that Council continue to pursue the maintenance dredging for the boat ramp. Her motion (which can be seen in full in minutes on the Council website) was passed unanimously, with several councillors, including Cr Mohya Davies and Cr Kieran Kennedy, acknowledging the importance of the Toora boat ramp to local tourism and the local economy and speaking up in strong support.