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Council commits to character studies amid VCAT conflict

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Mitchell Shire councillors have lashed out at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, VCAT, blaming the body for a series of ‘disastrous’ rulings that prompted council to commit to spending more than $500,000 on neighbourhood character studies.

At last month’s council meeting, Cr Louise Bannister said council had rejected a string of ‘inappropriate development applications’ in the past year, many of which were overturned by VCAT on appeal from developers.

Cr Bannister said a common theme in VCAT’s findings was the neighbourhood character of towns like Kilmore and Broadford was not adequately documented.

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She said it led to VCAT dismissing ‘council’s legitimate concerns regarding these [high-density] developments’, claiming they had potential to negatively affect the physical and mental health of nearby residents, as well as the environment.

“Community [members] have loudly voiced their dissatisfaction with poor developments that impede the character and liveability of their neighbourhoods,” she said.

“Most people live here because of the country feel and close community, so we have to do our best to [protect] what we love about our shire.

“It is imperative that we have these neighbourhood character studies to ensure our towns are protected from bad developments.

“It is disappointing that we have to spend money on these neighbourhood character studies to prove our rejections of bad planning and developments are justified.”

Cr Bill Chisholm said the necessity of neighbourhood character plans was ‘bureaucracy gone mad’.

“We’re having to spend in excess of half a million dollars – and it’s probably well north of that once you employ two specialist planners – to achieve what we’re after,” he said.

“We’re appointed as councillors to understand and know the local area, so it abrogates our responsibility by giving people sitting in Melbourne the power to wipe out our decisions.

“We’ve spent millions of dollars doing proper planning for all the towns in Mitchell Shire since I’ve been on council. It is well in excess of $3 million at least, and this is another $500,000-plus on top of that so that the VCAT representative can understand the difference between … small country towns and inner suburban high-density development.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous and it’s bureaucracy that shouldn’t exist in the first place.”

Cr Rob Eldridge said the neighbourhood character requirements placed an unacceptable financial burden on council and called on the State Government to examine the way VCAT made its decisions.

“VCAT has totally lost its way,” he said.

“We are a regional council, and it’s all very well for inner suburban councils to have neighbourhood character studies, because … they would spill [$500,000] over their lunch.

“To put this sort of impost on a council like us, which is having trouble meeting budget commitments, just because somebody doesn’t want to come out and have a look at what the real situation is here is beyond the pale.

“I think it’s about time the State Government pulled its finger out and did something about VCAT and its impact on the growth area councils.”

Cr Nathan Clark said some VCAT decisions had led to radical shifts in local neighbourhoods.

“A couple of properties, like at 44 Tootle Street, go from having four bins out the front of two blocks on recycling night to 36 bins on the street, which is ludicrous.

“It doesn’t make sense how they came to those decisions.

“We are compelled to come up with these neighbourhood character studies. They are absolutely essential when VCAT can’t show any common sense or even bother to come and visit the neighbourhoods that they make these massive, impactful decisions upon.

“I’m hoping … VCAT can see we’re quire serious about preserving our neighbourhood character and in the meantime, before they’re produced, they take that into consideration.”

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