Another highly sensitive green wedge zone (GWZ) matter has been lodged with council, within a couple of kilometres of the application for a brewery in Fingal that got councillors’ OK on 12 December.
Approval for the new plan would inevitably accelerate the opening-up up of large rural areas for what is essentially urban development. It could end up wrecking the until-now solid shire policy of defending the 70-30 rural-urban land split on the Mornington Peninsula.
Bandicoot recently reported that the 12 December councillor decision was based on an officers’ report that omitted vital material about two legal decisions which ruled specifically that “brewery” is not a Rural Industry, and thus, under state and local planning rules, could not be located in a GWZ.
This followed councillor approval for the Willow Creek Winery to nearly double to 282 its patron numbers, also based on an officers’ report and statements to councillors at the 28 November council meeting that GWZ rules had been changed to permit more than 150 patrons in the GWZ. A subsequent rescission motion failed.
No evidence of such changes was offered, or is known of by GWZ experts.
The latest application proposes a radical $15-20 million transformation of a small bed and breakfast facility, Hilltonia Homestead, in Browns Rd, Fingal, into what the applicant describes as a “hot springs (leisure and recreation), ancillary restaurant, vegetation removal and associated works”.
The new development is proposed to be named Tea Tree Hot Springs.
The applicant, Hao Yang Australia PL, states that the proposal “is most appropriately defined as a ‘Restricted Recreation Facility’.” It would comprise a network of hot pools – Bandicoot is told some drilling has been done to prove the hot aquifer – parking spaces for 260 vehicles (some 60 of these for staff), with 150 overflow parking spaces, plus a “wellness centre” and café-restaurant.
The 350 guest parking spaces proposed indicate that anticipated patron numbers would vastly exceed the permitted GWZ maximum of 150 at any one time.
It is unclear how much additional accommodation, if any, is contemplated. None is mentioned. At present Hilltonia Homestead’s website advertises “five themed cottages”, the themes including African and Victorian-era décor. The application states that the property “provides 7 themed ‘cottages’ which typically accommodate 2 people [each]”.
An aerial view appears to confirm five “cottages” on the site, set among low coastal bushland. The application describes the proposal as a “resort” but does not detail, either by words or illustrations, any proposed extra sleeping facilities. Indeed, it is difficult to see any accommodation at all in the site plan, which is of the type generally known as a “mud map”. A dining area catering for some 110 patrons is shown.
A permit application granted in 2007, since lapsed, sought a residential hotel for 52 guests plus various leisure facilities, but did not include any hot springs.
The fact that the application is made on a small GWZ4 block – 38 acres (15.38 hectares), according to the website, but described as 14.87 ha on the application – would appear to count heavily against approval for the hot springs proposal.
The property is less than one-fifth of the standard GWZ4 block of 80 ha (200 acres). The planning scheme describes GWZ4 land’s primary purpose as providing “land for agriculture”. There follow a series of points that focus on agricultural and farming uses, as well as protecting, conserving and enhancing “the character of open rural and scenic non-urban landscapes” (planning scheme Clause 35.04).
Its GWZ4 status indicates the property is in an area where, Bandicoot believes, a minimum property size of 80 ha is required for development to take place. The application describes surrounding properties to the south, east and west as “farming land”.
A further huge hurdle for the applicant to clear is that, while the B&B was established in 1992 and thus has “existing use rights” for a B&B under GWZ, these rights do not permit an applicant to add non-existing uses such as a hot springs resort or a café-restaurant. A number of well known planning cases underline this. It also appears the applicant could be abandoning its B&B operation altogether.
It therefore should be difficult, if not impossible, to persuade either the shire or the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to allow totally new activities by arguing that a right exists for them.
As the applicant concedes, the Planning and Environment Act aims “to protect the green wedges of Metropolitan Melbourne from inappropriate development”.
It then submits that its new use, the hot springs proposal, should, as a “restricted recreation facility”, gain shire approval.
The shire planning scheme defines “restricted recreation facility” as “Land used by members of a club or group, members’ guests, or by the public on payment of a fee, for leisure, recreation, or sport, such as a bowling or tennis club, gymnasium and fitness centre. It may include food and drink for consumption on the premises, and gaming”.
This appears to leave open the likelihood that “gaming” could become a future activity at the site and may account for the volume of parking proposed. A study of the applicant’s “mud map” of the site indicates a number of pools scattered along boardwalks, but accommodation cottages are hard to spot.
None of the activities proposed and hinted at require a GWZ site and could easily – as is the case with a brewery – be located in a more appropriate zone.
Dealing with this point, the application states: “We believe that it has been reasonably demonstrated that the use and development of the site for a hot springs tourism facility has been carefully designed and sited so to [sic] not unreasonably impact neighbouring properties or environmental values and can operate harmoniously with the mixed land use of the area.”
It also argues: “The nature of the proposal is such that it is not well suited to be developed in an urban area, largely owing to the largely spread out nature of the development.”
Bandicoot reads this as a concession by the developer that the hot springs plan is essentially urban, the “fault” lying with land that is unfortunately zoned GWZ, with its constant and overriding aim of prioritising agriculture.
Nearby properties are able to grow crops such as lucerne and berries; the approved brewery plan, on similar land, plans to grow 12,000 apple, pear and citrus trees plus hops and barley for a brewery. Some crops are in and thriving, councillors were told on 12 December.
Shire planners have a duty to preserve GWZ. They must ensure they “prevent out-of-centre commercial developments in non-urban areas that undermine the activity centres policy” and “recognise, protect and conserve green wedge land for its agricultural, environmental, historic, landscape, recreational and tourism opportunities”, as well as “encourage sustainable farming activities and provide opportunity for a variety of productive agricultural uses”.
The possible knockout punch comes in clause 31.02 of the planning scheme. It states:
“Because a use is [permitted] does not imply that a permit should or will be granted. The [shire] must decide whether the proposal will produce acceptable outcomes in terms of the State Planning Policy Framework, the Local Planning Policy Framework, the purpose and decision guidelines of the zone and any of the other decision guidelines…”
But does this mean that an apparently cash-hungry urban-focused shire executive team and new, apparently development-inclined councillors, will take heed?
* Read the Mornington Peninsula Planning Scheme at the shire website, mornpen.vic.gov.au: type “planning policy” in the search window and click. The “Mornington Peninsula Planning” window will open. You can then view the scheme online.
Of particular interest is Clause 35.04 Green Wedge Zone and Clause 35.04-6, dealing with General Issues, Rural Issues, Environmental Issues and Design and Siting Issues. None of these issues are canvassed in the application before council. They are not dealt with in this article for space reasons, but readers wishing to learn more about the GWZ will find them very useful.
Search the shire website for P16/0665 to read the hot springs application in full.