SCHOOL “EXTENSION” – A CAR PARK – REJECTED

Shire planners on Monday night (17 July) overreached more than somewhat, in Bandicoot’s view, recommending councillors approve a large car park on green wedge land to serve a school on the other side of the road, part of it in a different planning zone, and on a separate title.

Padua - parking detail Google EarthThe proposal was rejected 6 votes to 3. 

The application was – misleadingly, in Bandicoot’s opinion – for “use and development of a secondary school (extension of existing school) at 75 Oakbank Rd, Mount Eliza”.  Padua campus (bottom) and the 4 hectares opposite it.

Shire planners told councillors the car park was simply an extension of the adjacent Padua College, part of which is “as of right” on land that since 2003 has been designated green wedge, and that the car park is “in conjunction with” the school.

The school’s application was for use of the four-hectare block “as a secondary school and the development of a car park”, arguing that “a car park is also a discretionary use in the GWZ if it is used in conjunction with another use” – that use being the school over the road.

No school building was proposed for the block in the application. No specific green wedge planning material was put to councillors to back officers’ assertions.

Padua - planning for growthMuch green wedge development, such as a winery restaurant or reception centre, must be “in conjunction with” agriculture (such as grape growing) to meet green wedge rules. The restaurant/reception centre car park is regarded as a natural part of the building, needing no specific permit.  The original future planning artwork

Padua planning detailThe school’s proposed car park was, it appears from images supplied with the application, the major piece of infrastructure planned for the four-hectare block and thus featured no agriculture or anything else with which to be “in conjunction”. ‘Planning for Growth’ detail

Shire planning services team leader David McPherson told councillors an existing house was proposed to serve as a spiritual retreat and exhibition space for the school. A 197-space staff car park in crushed rock would be the only new work on the land.

Scepticism, informed by green wedge knowledge, reared its logical head early in questions about the application when Cr David Gill, who represents the nearly all-green wedge Red Hill ward, asked planning officers if they had sought legal advice on the school’s application before recommending it be approved.

They conceded they had not, adding that their decision had been “a judgement call”.

Padua - latest future plan“Officers are comfortable with the position taken,” Mr McPherson said. “It’s not something that’s been done ad hoc or without consultation in the office” – the shire recently hired an in-house lawyer, who may have been asked for an opinion. “Also the planning scheme allows discretion in the consideration of the school use which has been applied for.”   The amended artwork

Cr Gill: This is a discretionary use decision? Mr McPherson: Correct.

Planning services executive manager David Bergin told Cr Gill the car park was allowable as a green wedge use – “Officers have determined the change of use to be acceptable to a school use, based on the planning scheme provisions,” he said.

Cr Gill: The question is, it’s allowable, but it’s still a judgement call by the planners. Mr Bergin: Such judgement calls are made every day of the week.

Cr Bev Colomb: Were the principles of green wedge taken into account? Mr McPherson. Yes. Officers have sought to place heavy conditions on the site.

padua - aerial; objectorsCr Simon Brooks: Will approval of this application set a precedent? Mr McPherson: No. Each application is assessed on its merits.

Cr Sam Hearn, following a Cr Kate Roper question about further building on the site, asked if proposed conditions on the permit were restricting “anything over and above the use proposed”, being the car park and use of the dwelling.

Mr McPherson: The proposed conditions “pretty much designate a use in every square metre of that site … [development] by stealth, no; by consideration, yes.”

Cr Colomb asked if the shire had previously received a green wedge application simply for a car park on a separate title. Mr Bergin: I can’t think of any off the top of my head. But, like with any land use, we seek to impose the most appropriate conditions as part of our consideration if we choose to support an application.

Padua - car park siteCr Gill: if this had been an application [just] for a car park, what consideration would you have given to it?

Mr McPherson: We would have been a lot more conservative because we wouldn’t have known what the use of the rest of the land would have been, and it would have remained in agricultural use. So there would have been a real disconnect between the existing dwelling and the activities that go with the agricultural pursuits associated with that, compared with the real excising of land and for the car park that goes across the road … this is the preferred application that officers want to see in front of it because we have more control. If it were a car park application it might well be a different recommendation from officers.

The meeting then heard from objectors, including local thoroughbred horse expert Irene Hutchinson, who told the meeting her horses were frightened to enter paddocks near the Padua site where the car park is proposed because of noisy behaviour there.

This had reduced her useable land from 10 to six acres, she said, affecting her business.

Former Mt Eliza ward councillor Leigh Eustace spoke strongly on the significance of the land. The Padua property was part of the green wedge break separating the townships of Mt Eliza and Mornington, originally zoned the “inter-urban break”, he said.

Planning controls had restricted uses of the “green break” from becoming fragmented and ensuring it was maintained for agriculture, Mr Eustace said.

While the planning scheme had changed to allow schools into the green wedge zone, the Padua application to build a car park on the land “falls very far short of the definition of a school, or even a school annexe”, he said. Only limited educational activities would occur on the land.

“The emphasis in this application is a car park,” he said, “in the main to service the Padua school across the road.

“Whilst a car park is a permitted use, it must have a primary relationship to the land title. In this case the car park that will service the Padua college cannot even be considered a secondary use, as the college resides across the road on a different land holding, zoned SUZ (Special Use Zone).”

Further, Mr Eustace said, “This application cannot satisfy the ‘in conjunction with’ test.” He cited several VCAT decisions to support this argument.

Turning to the use proposed for the land, he said: “For the officer report to say that this application meets the provisions of the objectives of the planning scheme and environmental overlays is misguided. This application provides nothing to maintain the agricultural and environmental values of the land.”

Padua business manager Russell Saunders told the meeting no further development of the land was proposed. Yet an image Bandicoot was told came from school material, titled “Planning for Growth”, which appears to have been aimed at attracting new students, clearly shows a “community pavilion” and “all weather (soccer) pitches” on the land north of the staff car park.

The image has, Bandicoot believes, since been replaced by the one from which these facilities have been removed. Bandicoot could find either image on the Padua website. He has been told they were removed before the planning application conference took place some months ago.

Cr Bev Colomb spoke passionately against the car park proposal, quoting the objectives of the peninsula’s green wedge zone – 70% of the shire’s total area.

To read more about this, go to:

http://morningtonpeninsulabandicoot.com/2017/01/06/why-the-green-wedge-is-so-important/

(Efforts to develop the green wedge are constant, despite the shire’s green wedge vision, and the the wishes of the vast bulk of the peninsula community, to preserve it for the purposes set out in the article pointed to above. Another will come to council in coming weeks.)

Padua - parking on campus (G Earth)When all debate was finished and the vote was called, Cr Gill moved an alternative motion – to refuse the application. This was carried, with only councillors Antonella Celi, Bryan Payne and Rosie Clark voting against it.

Padua campus

The successful motion stated that the proposal:

 Would cause the unplanned loss of agricultural land due to permanent change of land use, which conflicts with objectives of the Green Wedge Zone and Clause 14.01 of the Mornington Peninsula Planning Scheme;

 Would be incompatible with the agricultural activities that occur on the adjoining properties;

 Had failed to demonstrate how the proposal would relate to sustainable land management in accordance with the objectives of schedule 1 of the Environmental Significance Overlay.

It is not clear what Padua’s next move will be. Their options are to test the council refusal at VCAT; submit an amended proposal; or carefully consider whether they should sell the four hectares and examine containing all required parking on the main school site.

Perhaps one further consideration is for Padua officials to investigate if the school site is big enough and appropriate for the ambitious expansion plans being put forward for it.

The shire itself needs to take stock of its approach to the green wedge. Councillors who were sworn in late last year have still not been briefed on the green wedge, leaving a vast chasm in their planning knowledge.

If senior planning officers are too busy to impart this vital information to the councillors, especially the first-timers, an expert must surely be brought in to do the job.

Councillors are now about 260 days into their terms. It is astonishing that they have not yet had this briefing. Utterly astonishing, and utterly unacceptable, in Bandicoot’s view. Shire CEO Carl Cowie should order that the situation be remedied forthwith.

Second, the planning department should perhaps do some soul-searching on green wedge issues. Bandicoot has written about two cases in which written reports to councillors contained inaccuracies, which could well have affected councillors’ decision making.

Padua - logoIn one case, information in an officers report was plain wrong. In the second, very important information was not in the written report, nor mentioned at the council meeting. That information – two VCAT decisions – was known to the applicant’s representative and should have been known to planning staff.

In this case, there is a telling statement from a shire officer. Keeping in mind that the essence of this case is a car park proposed for green wedge land, Cr Gill had asked Mr McPherson: if this had been an application for a car park (and not use and development of a school, extension of existing school, as the application states), what consideration would you have given to it?

This question belled the cat. It exposed the simple reality of the school’s application – as Basil Fawlty might have put it, “Don’t mention the car park”.

Mr McPherson cast about for words. Bandicoot transcribed his entire response. “We would have been a lot more conservative,” he began, then added a fair serve of white noise … “there would have been a real disconnect … compared with the real excising of land … the car park that goes across the road …”

A valiant effort. Then he took a breath and confronted the question. “If it were a car park application it might well be a different recommendation from officers,” he said.

Of course, it should initially have been an application for a car park. But, had it been, it would almost certainly have been rejected outright. But no amount of artful wording, no reliance of this or that green wedge phrase – “in conjunction with” got a good run, so did reliance on schools being permitted in green wedge – could ultimately unbell the cat.

No school was being proposed on the land at 75 Oakbank Rd. Just a car park, in conjunction with nothing, really. Certainly not with agriculture, or an onsite school. Padua, over the road, was irrelevant to the application.

Mr David Bergin, asked by Cr Colomb if the shire had ever before received an application simply for a car park on green wedge land, said he couldn’t recall one “off the top of my head”. That is possibly because it has never occurred to anyone to bung a car park on a block of agricultural land.

Finally, we have the school itself engaging in a fantastical attempt to go back and erase images that many, including objectors, parents, probably attendees of the planning application conference – and Padua students – had seen and studied.

Many knew that the deleted Masterplan had stated: “The 10 acres of land located across the road from the College at 75 Oakbank Road, purchased in 2015, will be utilised for staff car parking and future community facilities, as per the Masterplan.”

Such a statement can’t just be wished away. A school report might say: “Can do better” – as a great number of Bandicoot’s did. Or recommend someone get six of the best.