THE legacy of COVID-19 lives on, or is this just a better way? We watched on Zoom for five days, from Monday 30 January until the conclusion on Friday 3 February. South Gippsland Conservation Society's vice-president John Cuttriss and I sat in the Bunurong Environment Centre to bear witness to the biggest-ever expenditure in the 47 years of the society.
Through the course of the week, we were joined online and in the flesh by Society members and others, including the press. Like all binge viewing sessions, the experience altered us.
VCAT is one of the dispute resolution bodies of the State of Victoria. It is not a court. It is a more informal means of dispute resolution. The lawyers still dominate. There were three solicitors, one each for SGCS, Bass Coast Shire Council and Forte Group the developer. I can now understand why planners all say the same thing – avoid VCAT! Like kids forced to attend school, we endured and learnt more about the process than we ever wanted to know.
The dispute is over the development of the former Inverloch Marine site at 2-4 The Esplanade, Inverloch. It involves our council, the developers and objectors, including SGCS. It has been referred to VCAT for resolution, which means VCAT has taken over the role of decision maker from the council.
The Forte Group proposes a four-storey residential hotel of 40 units with two ground level retail outlets and a rooftop bar. Down below is their front yard - The Glade. Rainbow Park is their playground, and there’s not a barbecue on site. Why bother when guests can use the public one? The landscaping is on public land too.
SGCS sees this as a watershed development. If successful, it will influence the trajectory of Inverloch. It has pushed the preferred height of the site from 9.5 metres to nearer 15 metres at the top of the lift run and covers over 96 per cent of the site. Other new commercial buildings will also shoot for greater height, chipping away at the coastal village character.
Despite this case involving three parties, it turned out to be more of a two-way tussle. Both the SGCS and Forte took the council to VCAT. SGCS wanted less, Forte wanted more. The major antagonists, taking most oxygen, proved to be the solicitor for the Forte Group, Dominic Scally, and the solicitor for SGCS, Barnaby McIlrath.
The prime task of the solicitors is to persuade the VCAT Senior Member. They marshal their selected expert witnesses, acknowledged and independent authorities in their subject area, who give evidence to support their contentions. These expert witnesses can be cross examined by the opposing solicitors and questioned by the objectors.
Expert witnesses are employed by the proponents through their solicitors and work for the Tribunal. SGCS employed Amanda Roberts, an urban designer, and Forte employed Tim McBride-Burgess, a town planner, plus three others in photomontage, traffic management and landscaping.
As you can imagine, with four professionals engaged for five days plus expert witnesses for lesser times, this is an expensive affair. And serious. Routine for the prime participants (whose work brings them into regular contact with one another) but mind numbing, by Day 5, for myself.
To give some context to how expensive in time and effort the VCAT process is, The Tribunal Book where all background proposals, objections, arguments and evidence are compiled amounts to 2500 pages.
The site is about 2500sqm, equivalent to three large house blocks. It’s the only private land on the seaward side of The Esplanade in Inverloch. It overlooks The Glade to the east, The Wyeth-McNamara Park Playground (Rainbow Park) to the south, Bunurong Environment Centre to the west and the Esplanade and public bus stop to the north.
Complicating it all, the council has engaged a landscape architect to design a dinosaur themed playground for its dinosaur trail initiative and architects to devise concepts for a new public building on the site of the Bunurong Environment Centre. So little space, so much to house, and where to park?
The Glade is part of the Victorian Coastal Reserve. Like all coastal reserves adjoining towns in the shire, it is managed by the council. The Victorian Coastal Reserve is a continuous strip of public land, of variable width, along the entire Victorian coast. It includes the primary dune system. The width of the coastal reserve across The Glade to the shallow dynamic estuary of Anderson Inlet is only about 100 metres.
Inverloch is a coastal village, and The Glade is in effect Inverloch’s village green, hosting bimonthly markets, music events at the new soundshell and informal meetings and gatherings. After the drive down from Melbourne where do families go first? The playground and park.
Forte, the council and SGCS all recognise the exceptional nature of the site. In early July 2022, before any objection to VCAT, three of us drove down to Thomastown to the Forte offices, had a pleasant meeting with the developers and proposed a different approach, one that would maximise benefit to all. Unfortunately, our overture was rejected.
An abiding takeaway from a week of VCAT is that perhaps one reason exceptional design is so loudly celebrated is because it is so rarely achieved. It requires imagination, bravery, persistence, sweat and a bit of magic.
Throughout the process we are drawn, increment by increment, question asked by question not asked, “away from any notion of the exceptional and outstanding to the adequate and acceptable”, as one of the more astute observers put it.
No one asked how this building would improve the established community role of The Glade. Passive surveillance was the only aspect mentioned, ie. people in the hotel looking down on to other people in the park. Does that make you comfortable? What of ecology? One-off planting on a small scale and meagre extent.
The climax, at 1.30 pm last Friday, involved the reading out of the final conditions that have been proposed to allow the thing to be built: a rooftop bar is for hotel patrons and their guests only; no functions at all in the hotel; no sale of liquor for on or off-site consumption, and on it goes. Nothing substantial or relevant to our objections.
It was an incredible process to witness. It reminds me of scrutineering at an election: terrible to spend such a lot of time witnessing such a tedious process but ultimately reassuring to know that we have such mechanisms. Even if it is our best worst solution since duelling was outlawed.
In the end it may be seen fundamentally as a clash of cultures or world views. Both the South Gippsland Conservation Society and the developer value the regional coastal village of Inverloch but from different angles. We value The Glade as a part of the Victorian Coastal Reserve and all that it is. They value what the surrounding public lands can give to their development.
Ed Thexton is president of the South Gippsland Conservation Society. The VCAT decision is expected in March.