AS THE Bass Coast Distinctive Areas and Landscapes hearings draw to a close, we can reflect on a tumultuous two months in which our landscape and community has been probed, questioned, discussed, debated, pondered and revised as never before.
The high point for me was the appearance of seven Bass Coast councillors at the Cape Paterson Surf Lifesaving Club on Day 19 of the hearing, when the combined conservation group began their presentation on the Western Port Woodlands.
Their appearance was a powerful statement that showed the council and community are united on the issue, and it was acknowledged by the chair of the panel, Kathy Mitchell.
Ms Mitchell has shown some impatience with lawyers and planners during these hearings but she positively beamed at this presentation.
I must admit I skipped the two weeks of developers’ presentations (made by expensive lawyers and planners) on why it was in the public interest to extend the town boundaries to incorporate farmland owned by their clients. No doubt the phrases “affordable” and “housing choice” were heard many times. I doubt that anyone mentioned the jackpot profits to be made when farmland is rezoned for housing.
Much of the proceedings were gruelling for the layperson, even for those with a stake in the outcome. It’s hard not to drift off when lawyers are arguing about whether Section 64d(2a) of the Mineral Resources Sustainable Development Act trumps Section 14D(a) of the Bass Coast Shire Planning Scheme or whether both are trumped by Part 3(iii) of the Planning and Environment Act. (Don’t waste your time looking up those references. I just made them up.)
As for the woodlands, we are confident we will get something out of the DAL process. A conclave of ecologists agreed the WPW were nationally significant and officers from the Department of Transport and Planning (DTP) has recognised “the unique, significant and intrinsic biodiversity value of the Western Port Woodlands corridor as a whole, irrespective of land tenure. They also recognised the potential for cumulative, permanent impacts associated with extractive industries in the region”.
The recognition is valuable in itself, but Ms Mitchell has warned us all that we must be realistic about what the DAL process can and can't achieve. The question now is what is to be done about the woodlands. The panel instructed representatives of the Minister of Planning, the council and the conservation groups to meet on Friday to determine what they can agree on with regard to the woodlands. The rest is still up for debate.
This past week of the hearings has been my favourite, when the community had a chance to present. Most of the presentations related to the Western Port Woodlands and the Cape boundary, which have been the overwhelming issues for the panel. As opposed to the dry grind of the professional presentations, these were heartfelt and individual.
- Most passionate presenter: Meryl Tobin, who was just working up a head of steam when she unfortunately ran out of time.
- Gold star for attendance: Geoff Glare, who attended most days over the seven weeks, including when the panel sat in Melbourne. Geoff gave two telling presentations on rare fauna and flora: one for the Cape Paterson group and another on the woodlands, both featuring his superb photographs.
- Most telling comment: Anne Westwood, woodland warrior for almost 50 years. “Greed will always win – follow the money, you’ll never go wrong.”
- Most surprising appearance: Michael Nugent, who appeared in lime green trousers then revealed to the panel that he had been the Technical Director of the International Integrated Reporting Council based in London, and the Vice-chair of the Global Sustainability Standards Board based in Amsterdam. Even those of us who have long suspected Michael of having a double life were staggered by his credentials.
Michael told the panel: “The dollar no longer stays unchallenged as the only, or even necessarily the dominant factor when it comes to decisions. Environmental, social, and economic factors are gaining supremacy in a world that is rightly, and necessarily deeply concerned with making future development sustainable
Questioned on the way out, he blithely admitted it was a long time since he’d been interested in “the money side” of accounting! And with that, he zipped off to do more good works.
So the DAL hearings are drawing to a close and some of us will have to find a new pastime. What now? Next week is scheduled for closing submissions from the Planning Minister (the Proponent), the council, developers and the two main community groups.
The panel must submit its written report to the Planning Minister, Sonia Kilkenny, within 40 days of the end of the hearing, t. The Minister doesn’t have to accept the panel’s recommendations, nor does she have to make them public.
There is no time limit for the Minister’s final decision but, given that the council and community are in a state of limbo, the announcement will probably come before the end of the year. Only then will we discover whether it has been worth the enormous effort that so many people have put into it.
Catherine Watson is a member of Save Western Port Woodlands.