Objection to Retrospective Place of Worship Application, Devon Meadows

I am writing with an urgent plea. Please do not approve this urban use application. Each one that is approved provides incentive and precedent for another, and I think this is the first in the Western Port Green Wedge. But if it gets through, this highly vulnerable area will be subjected to the same assault of urban use applications that we are now seeing in Narre Warren North and Narre Warren East.

Importantly, I believe the Officers’ Report to be seriously compromised. I have already raised my concerns about this with the Planning Minister’s office and intend to issue a press release.

You are our elected representatives, and if the democratic process was working as it should, it would generally be reasonable for your vote to be guided by the planners and the views of the ward councillor. But the democratic process has been failing, as has now very publicly come to light. I am asking you to vote against a misguided planning recommendation. I am doing this not only as the acting delegate for the Western Port Green Wedge, but because the Devon Meadows and other potentially affected neighbouring communities currently have no ward councillor to speak on their behalf next Tuesday night.

Also, I grew up in nearby Pearcedale. Our market gardener neighbour’s daughter, my sister and I used to happily and safely ride our ponies along these quiet country roads, and pretend to be Bedouins on Arab horses in the old Cranbourne sand quarry. So I have a special and enduring affection for the area.

Last Friday, I learned from the responsible planning officer, that this is a retrospective application. In other words, the site has already been used as a Place of worship without a permit, to the detriment of the neighbors’ amenity and in disregard of both State and local planning policies.
When the neighbours finally objected, what is Council Planning Department’s response? Not to properly consider the residents’ complaints by assessing the application against the plethora of applicable planning policies that support refusal, as the Yarra Ranges Council has recently done (see attached Notice of Refusal), but to recommend rewarding the property owners by granting them a permit so that the activities disturbing those around them can continue without recourse.

This is becoming all too common a story. Do what you like, plead ignorance when you’re sprung, then get what you want because you’re already doing it. In what parallel universe is this fair or appropriate?

And what is the planning justification? Places of worship are a Section 2 Use, permitted in the GWAZ but at Council’s discretion, provided they satisfy the long list of policy objectives, strategies, guidelines or zone requirements for the area. This one doesn’t.

Some of you will be aware that in my role as convener and spokesperson for the Save the Casey Foothills Association and Green Wedges Coalition delegate, I have had more than 25 years experience in analyzing and assessing planning applications that would degrade the core values of our special places and erode the Government’s Green Wedge policies whose aim is to protect and enhance them. I have presented at VCAT and Planning Panels more times than I care to remember.

But I don’t think I have ever seen an Officer’s Report that is so flawed, so misdirected, and so lacking in objectivity. It must be challenged.

I  won’t go through it point by point but the following will, I hope, demonstrate why I am so alarmed.

  • The subject site is located on land within the Green Wedge A Zone (GWAZ). As such it must be assessed first and foremost against Clause 35.05 of the Victorian Planning Provisions (VPP), included in the Casey Planning Scheme (CPS). Yet apart from listing it as the Zone description under Executive Summary on the first page (Page 101 of the Agenda), I can find no reference to this pivotal piece of Government legislation anywhere in the Report.
  • It also fails to assess the application against CPS Clause 11.01-1R “Green Wedges – Metropolitan Melbourne” and VPP Clause 51.02 “Metropolitan Green Wedge Land – Core Planning Provisions”.
  • Instead, the Report spends pages assessing it almost solely on a string of largely irrelevant urban-related policies around settlement and housing, transport, built environment and infrastructure, with the emphasis on “fair distribution of and access to social and cultural infrastructure”. But this is a general, not a green wedge policy, and the planner is clearly cherry picking, trying to make the hand fit a particular glove.
  • On Page 107 of the Council Meeting Agenda under “Key Issues 1. Land Use, the Report selectively references aspects of Clause 22.08 “Non-Agricultural Uses in Green Wedge Areas”. This is probably the least relevant green wedge policy in relation to the one-hectare subject site, but even here there are relevant Policy Objectives, including:
    • To discourage the intrusion of urban-type uses into Green Wedge areas.
    • To ensure that non-agricultural uses do not have an adverse impact on areas of high environmental or natural resource value.
    • To reduce car dependency in Casey by consolidating non-agricultural uses in urban and township areas.

Yet while this, the least relevant of the GWAZ policies appear to be the only one “addressed” in the Report, these three objectives are not mentioned, despite the designated waterway that runs across a significant section of the property and its potential importance to the Southern Brown Bandicoot corridor study area. (See Page 3.)

The third paragraph in particular needs to be called out, as it makes highly misleading incorrect assertions, in particular that Planning Practice Note 62 provides “clarity on the purpose of this (Green Wedge A) zone, stating that the Zone can accommodate limited forms of urban development”. I have attached the full version of Practice Note 62, but the following is what it says under GWAZ heading:

Green Wedge A Zone
The Green Wedge A Zone is appropriate to apply to areas recognising and protecting non-urban land outside the UGB in the metropolitan area for its agricultural, environmental, historic, landscape, infrastructure, natural resource and rural living attributes.

The zone provides opportunity for all agricultural uses and limits non-rural uses to those that either support agriculture or tourism, schools, major infrastructure or rural living. A dwelling requires a permit and is restricted to one dwelling per lot.

The zone provides a minimum lot size of eight hectares unless an alternative is specified in a schedule to the zone. The creation of smaller lots is prohibited unless the subdivision is the re-subdivision of existing lots or the creation of a small lot for a utility installation.

There is nothing here to support the above mentioned claims. But even more alarming is the last paragraph on Page 107:
“… Western Port Green Wedge Management Plan: Future directions and preferred land uses for Precinct 2 at section 12.2.2 states that (these) provide a preferred location for non-rural uses such as primary and secondary schools and Places of Worship, specifically within the area bounded by Cranbourne-Frankston Road, Pearcedale Road and Browns Road, subject to strategic justification.”
Any reasonable person would surely assume that the subject site falls within these boundaries. It doesn’t. In fact it is nowhere near the recommended location, which is sandwiched between existing residential areas!

Re the Southern Brown Bandicoot
The site is one of a string of smaller properties north side of Brown’s Road where the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) hooks up to exclude them. This was clearly done for a purpose when the Government set the UGB, but my suggestion to Sangeeta that it should be investigated was summarily dismissed.

These blocks are located in a belt of land identified in the South East Growth Corridor Plan as an area where “Connections between Southern Brown Bandicoot populations in the RBG (Royal Botanic Gardens) Cranbourne and other populations outside the UGB to be resolved in accordance with the Biodiversity Conservation Strategy”. (See SEGCP Note 6).
Any regular intensive use of the site as proposed would run counter to the efforts to protect this threatened species. No permits should be granted for discretionary non-rural uses outside the UGB in this area, especially as the Victorian Planning Authority (VPA) has not been completed the Devon Meadows Precinct Structure Plan.
Therefore no decision has been made in respect of the proposed Southern Brown Bandicoot habitat corridor – a condition for approval of the rezoning of adjacent, former Green Wedge land for urban growth, required under the terms of the Federal Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
Note that in its Precinct Structure Plans (PSP) section, the City of Casey states: “The (Devon Meadows) PSP will guide land use and development within the precinct”.

Approving this Application would pre-empt and potentially contravene these guidelines.

Sangeeta was equally dismissive when I pointed out the apparent identification on the South East Growth Corridor Plan map of this and neighbouring properties as being in the study zone for Southern Brown bandicoot corridors, and there is no reference to any of this in the Report.

I reference this map in my objection, which will presumably be made available to you, though I can’t be sure of that. A number of important points I raised in this objection didn’t make it onto the list of “Grounds of objection” on Page 105 – in particular, my contention that the application does not satisfy the requirements of Clause 35.05 The Green Wedge A Zone, and my concerns about the above.

When pinned down, Sangeeta conceded that she hadn’t looked at the map and suggested unconvincingly that she would “follow it up”. I didn’t get the impression that she had any intention of doing this, which made me wonder just how impartial she is and whether her judgement might be clouded by partisanship.

The State Government, well aware of the high level of threat posed by these Place of worship and School applications to the green wedges, is reviewing the legislation and policies designed to protect them. This process is due to start in March 2020, and it would surely be sensible to hold off making any decisions that would pre-empt and potentially fly in the face of the outcome.

Moreover, in light of the above, a decision to approve is likely to see a rush of other similar urban use applications wanting to get in before the Government shuts the door on them as we (the Green Wedges Coalition) hope will happen.

All we’re asking is that Council refuse this and any future similarly problematic applications, at least until the Government review and the Devon Meadows Structure Plan are complete. If the applicants then appeal to VCAT, at least the objectors will be able to afford to apply to present, and their case will be stronger if it is supporting rather than opposing Council’s decision.

They and all those fighting to save the green wedges from “death by a thousand cuts” are relying on you to make the right decision. Please don’t let us down.

Green Wedges: 
Saturday, 30 November, 2019