LANDHOLDERS along the five earth seawalls which stretch for 25 kilometres across the Corner Inlet coastal flats, protecting around 17,000 hectares of land from inundation from the sea, are awaiting this afternoon’s meeting of South Gippsland Shire Council with great interest.
On the agenda is a decision on the ongoing management of the seawalls, which has proved in recent months to be a highly contentious issue.
The latest report by shire officers considers five options (updated from the four considered at the August council meeting) to manage maintenance of the seawalls into the future. It recommends that Council await a State Government response, expected in March 2013, to recommendations made by the Environment and Natural Resources Committee (ENRC) in their Inquiry into Flood Mitigation Infrastructure in Victoria released in August 2012.
Council is keen to minimise its risk exposure for infrastructure such as the seawalls which it does not own, although a Section 86 advisory committee, the Corner Inlet Drainage Area Advisory Committee, currently provides advice on maintenance of the walls. Maintenance is funded by special charges levied on owners in the area.
In recent years climate change has heightened concerns coastal councils such as South Gippsland have about liability.
“Our legal advice is that potentially we’re liable to be sued by affected landholders if the wall fails,” said the mayor, Warren Raabe, at a pre-meeting public presentation on the seawalls last Wednesday.
Allen Van Kuyk presented on behalf of the seawall committee. He said that the committee had discussed the proposals for management of the seawalls and had significant concerns. “We don’t believe any of the options are satisfactory,” he said.
Cr Raabe said that it would be best for Council to revoke the Section 86 committee so that it would no longer be managing the seawalls and therefore would not be liable if the walls failed.
However, he added: “We don’t want to do that to you immediately,” indicating that he would be willing to wait until the State Government’s recommendation comes through and it was possible – though not likely – that would include a recommendation that catchment management authorities such as the West Gippsland CMA manage rural seawalls.
Addressing Mr Van Kuyk and fellow affected landowners, the mayor summed up his own feelings on the matter by saying: “We are heading in the direction of revoking the Section 86 committee, but not yet. In the meantime, we should be helping you to transition to an alternative which doesn’t cost too much. There’s a recommendation on the agenda papers, but I’ve a feeling the majority of councillors would like to see that strengthened, although we may be able to wait 18 months.”
Mr Van Kuyk said that the landholders were disappointed, because they felt that they paid rates to Council on the land in question and this was “a continuing source of income provided to the shire” and “we believe the shire is treating us poorly in this respect. We get very little for the rates we pay.”
Cr Jim Fawcett spoke up at this point, saying: “We very much sympathise with you, but in the event there is a loss of land Council could be sued for as much as $190 million because we’re talking about 17,000 hectares. We have to strike a balance. We’re reluctant to expose ourselves to such a level of liability. The rates paid would go nowhere near covering it.” As food for thought he cited the recent – and ongoing – case in which the drains at Koo Wee Rup were breached, resulting in landowners suing Melbourne Water for huge sums of money.
Brendan McGlead asserted that the shire created a large problem in allowing low-lying land to be subdivided, so now there are lots of small blocks bordering the seawalls. He suggested that these landowners would be the ones who would sue if there was a breach in the walls. He also took issue with those councillors who had not visited the seawalls to gain a better understanding.
In response, Cr Fawcett said that the land had been subdivided by a previous council. He also pointed out that he used to own land in the area and so was familiar with the seawalls.
Carmel Van Kuyk said that the seawalls were built to protect farmland and it was not fair to have so many people, including small property owners, liable if there was inundation.
Cr Raabe said that Council will work to find a way in which individuals are not liable, but rather the group of affected landowners as a whole.
At this point Cr Jeanette Harding spoke up in support of the concerned landowners.
“It’s the small landholders who’ve bought recently who won’t look after the seawall,” she said, claiming that several had said as much, asserting they would let the land flood “and Council will look after it”. “I think it’s the shire’s fault that houses are being built where they shouldn’t be built.”
“I’m not prepared to take a risk on behalf of the ratepayers of South Gippsland,” concluded Cr Raabe.
Cr Jennie Deane assured the concerned landholders that the mayor was perhaps not speaking for the majority of councillors and there was no saying how the debate would go at the forthcoming council meeting. “I urge you to come to the meeting, where you can expect a robust debate where several points of view will be aired,” she said.