Allowing schools in bushfire prone green wedges puts children’s lives at risk

Green Wedges Coalition

The semi-rural hamlets of Narre Warren North, Narre Warren East and Lysterfield are reeling from a sudden influx of five proposals for places of worship and schools in this tiny corner of the Southern Ranges Green Wedge, and the Western Port Green wedge is experiencing its first threat in Devon Meadows.

For six months or more, the ferocious fires devastating our eastern states have dominated the news. Why then are schools and places of worship still permitted uses in Melbourne’s high risk Green Wedge Zones?

This is especially inexplicable in the Southern Ranges Green Wedge where the whole region is in either a Bushfire Management Overlay (BMO) or a designated bushfire prone area, with large tracts of forest to the north through to the west. Bringing large numbers of people – especially children – into such a heavily timbered area on a regular basis is a recipe for disaster. (Ref: Addendum 1. Bushfire Risk)

On Ash Wednesday, devastating enough to make international headlines, 75 people died, 47 of them in Victoria, and 27 in this tiny corner of our Southern Ranges Green Wedge. In the Victorian 2009 Black Saturday fires, described by Wikipedia as being among Australia's all-time worst bushfire disasters”, 173 people lost their lives. But the scale of these catastrophic events could pale into insignificance if the
Government doesn’t act to disallow schools and places of worship in the fire prone Southern Ranges Green Wedge.

Our Coalition and some of the local residents have written to State Planning Minister Richard Wynne requesting that he call in the cluster of inappropriate urban use applications and veto further approvals of such developments in all green wedge areas, at least until the completion of the Government review of the Green Wedge planning provisions, due to start in the next few weeks. So far he has declined to intervene,
despite the fact that all three of the remaining “live” applications are in the IBAC beleaguered City of Casey.

While, to its credit, Yarra Ranges Council has recently rejected two inappropriate school proposals in Narre Warren East, Casey has approved two contentious Place of worship applications in its Green Wedges. Both are subject to VCAT appeals, the first being due to commence on 2 March. A school application in Narre Warren North appears to be in limbo – due perhaps to the recent decision to take all planning decisions out of the hands of Casey’s councillors and delegate them to a special, partially independent committee.

Any one of these three proposals would, if successful, represent the start of a dangerous trend. Pupils and worshippers would be drawn from the safety of their suburban communities into this high-risk area on a regular basis. Should a bushfire start in the vicinity of a school, the authorities would be hard pushed to prevent panic-stricken parents clogging the single lane country roads in the rush to get their children out, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Melbourne’s Green Wedges are being targeted by a range of religious groups as the place to locate their large-scale schools and places of worship. Why? Because the land is cheap, and the policies designed to protect it from inappropriate development are full of loopholes.

In the case of the Southern Ranges, it is not until you look at the applications marked on a map that the full impact is obvious. Seen together with four existing schools in the immediate area, it becomes clear that this important gateway to the Dandenongs where suburbia meets countryside is in imminent danger of becoming an education and/or religious precinct. (Ref: Addenda 2 List Of Applications & 3 Map of Applications.)

Six schools in a 1 km radius would be questionable in an urban area. Five in this corner of the Southern Ranges Green Wedge plus one on its boundary in a 1 km radius is surely ludicrous.

The Southern Ranges Green Wedge is characterised by magnificent panoramic views, large tracts of native vegetation including the Lysterfield Lake and Cardinia Parks, “lifestyle” farms with single dwelling policy interspersed with agricultural, horticultural and animal husbandry businesses. It is the gateway to the foothills of the Dandenong’s – a major tourist draw card. The locals deem these features sacrosanct and are determined to preserve them.

If all current and future school and place of worship proposals are not blocked, they will result in the permanent loss of an irreplaceable state asset. The rolling rural landscapes and high value bush land will be increasingly blemished by large scale urban built form with acres of bitumen car park until the area resembles a tattered lace doily.

Just one approval of these applications – two of which involved regular gatherings of over 1000 people – would open the floodgates and the tide of change will be unstoppable. This is not what Victorians want for Melbourne’s precious green wedges, or for the safety of their suburban-based children.

Coordinator, Save the Casey Foothills Association and Southern Ranges Green Wedges delegate, Green Wedges Coalition


Monday, 3 February, 2020