By Colin MacGillivray
Weed and pest control were at the centre of a debate on a new local law during last week’s Mitchell Shire Council meeting.
Councillors considered a new community and environment law, which was drafted last year but deferred to allow more community consultation on a range of points, including a condition requiring occupiers and owners of land other than farming zoned to eradicate vermin or noxious weeds on that land.
At last week’s meeting council officers recommended deleting the clause altogether, but Cr Fiona Stevens put forward an alternative motion that the clause be kept and expanded to all land owners and occupiers, including those on farming zoned land.
Cr Stevens’ motion also required only that owners and occupiers ‘take reasonable steps to control, reduce and manage’ weeds and vermin instead of needing to eradicate them.
Cr Stevens said her motion reflected the feedback of landowners. She described most Mitchell Shire landowners, particularly farmers, as responsible.
“Unfortunately, what’s crept into Mitchell Shire … is that there are parcels of land that are zoned farming land but are being bought up by absent owners who are not there to monitor, who are not there to take any interest in the land – it’s more or less land banking for future development,” she said.
Crs Rhonda Sanderson, Bob Cornish and David Lowe opposed Cr Stevens’ motion.
Cr Sanderson said the control of weeds and vermin was primarily the State Government’s responsibility and council would be unwise to accept the extra costs associated with enforcing the clause.
“This is not our role. The farmers [council consulted] who are very experienced and have been there for decades said this to us – this is the state agriculture department’s job. Why is council getting involved?” she said.
“Often the state will pass on responsibility to councils but won’t fully fund it, and time and time again I hear councillors around the chamber having a go at the State Government for cost shifting. I see this as a voluntary cost shift, and I can’t believe people are taking it on.”
Cr Sanderson noted while the neighbouring City of Whittlesea had weed-control laws on its books, it was under different circumstances.
“They’re only 490 square [kilometres] – we’re more than five times bigger at 2864 square [kilometres],” she said.
“They have very little farming zoned land – we are mostly farming zoned land. They had a population of nearly 250,000 at the last census – we’re just under 50,000. They’re five times bigger than us [in population] but five times smaller [in area].
“I think it’s premature for us to even consider this sort of thing. Maybe one day when we’re a big shire with lots of money, we can consider [it].”
Cr Louise Bannister said she understood Cr Sanderson’s concerns but supported Cr Stevens’ motion.
“I think it’s a tricky one in that we expect the state to do things and they don’t necessarily do them,” she said.
“Where do you take up the slack yourself to improve the area where we live? I think that’s the question we all have to ask ourselves.
“I hope everyone weighs up the potential costs but also the potential benefits of having something implemented like this in our shire.”
Cr Stevens said her motion included a trial period that would allow council to assess whether the new law was effective.
“We don’t know what the cost is going to be. If we try this we might be pleasantly surprised,” she said.
“I don’t think we have to jump to the worst-case scenario of assuming that … everything that comes before us is going to end up in court, which would then be quite costly.
“There are many steps … that would hopefully bring compliance and a solution much easier and more cost-effectively.”
Mayor Bill Chisholm backed Cr Stevens’ motion, describing invasive weeds as a growing problem in the shire, and that State Government-managed land was often among the worst maintained.
“It includes all landowners, and that includes a lot of State Government authorities and departments. If you look at where the Wallan [freeway] ramps are supposed to go, it’s a litter of gorse and high grass,” he said.
“This issue needs to be addressed. By having this in the local law we will be able to apply a lot more pressure to some of the government authorities and the ones responsible for all this.”