Randall Gerkens and Anne-Maree McCormick with their two children Frederick, front left, and Daniel on their Monegeetta cattle farm.

By Aleksandra Bliszczyk

A BOLD new planning proposal aimed at preserving agricultural land on Melbourne’s fringes has been met with criticism from some Victorian farmers.

In a move to manage subdivision, overdevelopment and land speculation, the Department of Environment, Land and Water Protection, DELWP, has proposed the removal of the current right to build dwellings, without a planning permit, on properties more than 40 hectares in the Farming Zone within 100 kilometres from Melbourne.

The State Government has been investigating since 2017 how to provide for a growing population and ensure the state’s six million residents, five million of which live in urban or peri-urban areas, will have access to locally-grown food and carbon-reducing green space for generations to come.

A government spokesperson said no decision had been made since the consultation period ended earlier this month, and all 850 submissions to the 120-page discussion paper were currently under review.

But Monegeetta farmer and real estate lawyer Randall Gerkens has voiced his objections.

“Supposedly the object of the exercise is to protect farms, but if the value of your farmland has been cut in half or more, your capacity to use it for normal borrowings and financing for farm improvements is basically destroyed,” he said.

“In my case, it’s not that I want to build houses … the point is the value of your land has been cut, and that has an impact on farming.”

Farmers could need to borrow against their land to buy stock and equipment and install upgrades like building new fences and sheds.

“Seasonal weather conditions and market conditions, changing prices for cattle and sheep and grain and the like, mean that you have to be able to get access to borrowing when required, and if you can’t do that then the business is no longer viable,” Mr Gerkens said.

“If you go to the bank and you’ve found the value of your land cut in half, your chances of getting a loan go down by the same rate.”

The rate of devaluation the proposal could inflict is unclear, and will vary, but Mr Gerkens believes it could be as high as 50 per cent.

The Planning for Melbourne’s Green Wedges and Agricultural Land consultation paper also makes no mention of compensation.

Mr Gerkens said compensation would not make up for land devaluation, but it should have been considered. DELWP did not respond to the Review’s request for comment on compensation.

He also said it did not address the costs associated with planning permits.

Application fees in the Macedon Ranges Shire, where Mr Gerkens’ Black Angus cattle farm sits, can cost thousands of dollars.

DELWP hosted two sets of 10-week consultations, the first last year for stakeholders and the second, for the wider community, closed on February 5, as well as sending emails and letters to affected landholders within the irrigation district.

However Mr Gerkens said he first heard about the proposal after noticing the advertising campaign, on social and local media.

He said many of the farmers he spoke to late last year hadn’t heard of the proposal, detailed on page 40 of the paper.

While the proposal aims to control overdevelopment, Mr Gerkens said it would be farmers immediately impacted if it was approved.

“[It] will actually undermine those people who are genuine farmers and not buying land for speculative purposes,” he said.

“What they should be doing is looking at other ways of encouraging farmers to stay on their farms and run viable farming businesses.”

For more information, visit www.planning.vic.gov.au/policy-and-strategy/green-wedges-and-agricultural-land.