By Colin MacGillivray
A Wallan business owner is irate after challenging a Mitchell Shire Council decision to reject a planning permit she was told she needed at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, VCAT, only to find the permit was not required in the first place.
Cheryl Jacovou, who operates Wallan Towing Service on High Street, said in 2020 she notified council of her intention to use the front portion of 126 High Street to store cars, as well as adapting the heritage-listed church building on the property into an office.
“In 2020 the State Government changed [occupational health and safety] laws,” she said.
“In the past if you had an accident, you were allowed in our car yard to come and get belongings out of your car, but with the changes … we thought we needed a safer system for the public to access vehicles.
“We thought we could utilise the church building as an office and a waiting area, because often we tow people who have broken down or been in an accident and are waiting for their relatives to come pick them up.
“There are not a lot of places to wait after hours, so we thought we’d open up the church and put an office in there to give them a place to sit and wait, plus a safe area where they’re not in the working yard.”
Ms Jacovou said she was told she required a permit in order to make the changes, which she applied for.
Council turned down the planning permit in 2021 and Ms Jacovou decided to challenge the decision at VCAT.
She said she had been frustrated at receiving only five minutes to present her case at a community questions and hearings committee, in accordance with council policy, and councillors’ apparent unfamiliarity with the business and its history.
“I believe the councillors are reading very little before you give your presentation to them,” she said.
“One of the councillors suggested the church be left vacant for the public to enjoy – well that’s not going to happen because it’s private property.
“[They said] that if the council had known the business was going to expand so much, they wouldn’t have allowed the business to start there; the business started in 1954 when there were 200 people in Wallan and it was under the Shire of Broadmeadows.”
In a decision handed down earlier this month, VCAT member Susan Whitney said Ms Jacovou never required a permit for the intended use of the land, and that the only permission required related to road access. The Department of Transport raised no objections to the alteration.
Ms Jacovou estimated she spent more than $20,000 in legal fees taking the matter to VCAT.
“Under C2 zoning, what we wanted to do was allowable without a permit – it was that simple,” she said.
“This is 20 months of my life that has now been wasted.”
Council chief executive Brett Luxford said solicitors for Ms Jacovou presented new information at the VCAT hearing that changed the context of her permit application.
“The applicant lodged a VCAT appeal to review council’s decision where they provided new information that changed the core of the application,” he said.
“As a result, the VCAT member directed the planning application be amended to reflect this information.
“Due to these changes, the use of the land as a vehicle store no longer required a planning permit and the only planning permit trigger was regarding access to a transport zone.
“As the Department of Transport has raised no concerns with the alteration of access, the VCAT Member has directed for a planning permit to be issued.
“Council will consider the VCAT determination at the June council meeting.”
But Ms Jacovou insisted it was council that had made a mistake.
“When you put in an application you have to define the area you’re talking about, called a planning unit,” she said.
“[Council] officers deemed that the whole of 126 [High Street] was the planning unit, but if they’d bothered to go back and read their own documents, including the letter they initially sent me, they stated they were only concerned about the front section of the block.
“They themselves in the trigger letter created the planning unit, so when we put the application in we only put it in for the front section. Council then went on the fact that the planning unit was the whole block.
“They were the ones who initially told us we needed one, and they didn’t look at their own information. They had it so wrong on so many levels it wasn’t funny.”