Dear Editor,

That the State’s top planning appeal is a maze of complexity seems well beyond doubt. Just one local case shows what may confront those who aim to try to find some protection, whether it be from fire or apparently excessive housing growth.

Residents appear powerless before the rulings of the authority set up to protect them, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, known as VCAT. Those who challenge VCAT in the Supreme Court have been left with crippling legal costs. But even before cases reach this level,  the expense at VCAT in planning cases may be daunting. Planning lawyers pulling down $8000 a day are just the start. Then there are the complexities of delays.

One local example is the move by residents of Elevated Plains to stop a “glamping” set-up of 11 accommodation units going ahead, basically because of bushfire danger. The site is to be named Woodstock, famously both a pivotal moment in popular music and a defining event of the counter-culture revolution of the sixties.

After both the Hepburn Shire Council and  VCAT rejected the glamping application, another one went to Council from the developer in August 2021. But there followed a long delay while the CFA sought more information and while the developer and the CFA seemingly negotiated a more bushfire-safe application. So, eight months later, after the CFA conditionally approved the application, the Council was given only 14 days to make a decision.

But  the council meeting to decide the application was 21 days away, a day after the deadline set by VCAT. When Council failed to make a decision by the deadline, the developer immediately launched an appeal to VCAT on the grounds of the Council failing to make a decision on time. The first part of the appeal in VCAT ran for four days last October. This was to determine a point of law, with a decision four months later. This point of law involved whether third parties, such as the objectors, were able to be heard on the matter of bushfire hazards, because the Planning Scheme says the objectors don’t have a “right of appeal” on the matter.

The VCAT found that objectors are not allowed to make submissions on the matter of bushfires, even though the threat of bushfires in this location is “extreme”, according to the location’s “Bushfire Management Overlay” set by the CFA. VCAT’s recent 65-page finding is 21,000 words long.

The objectors feel their lives are at risk from the threat of a glamping facility.  A seven-day hearing is now scheduled to start on April 18. So far, the two VCAT cases  have cost residents more than $60,000.

As well as fire danger, residents are worried about wastewater from the almost eight-hectare site at the eastern end of Charlies Rd, abutting olive groves and grazing land, as well as the permanent removal of valuable agricultural land.

One objector, who asked to be anonymous, told the Council he feared dying in a bushfire and extended this fear to those staying on the land and others in the community.  Nine locals made submissions, but VCAT now wants amended submissions, saying the first batch covered topics that the locals were not entitled to address. Critically, this includes bushfire danger.

The objectors, 16 in total, say they accept the VCAT decision, but that it feels unfair for them not to be heard on this. According to the VCAT decision, there were no compelling or exceptional reasons to make the objectors parties on the matter of bushfire, although VCAT has the power to do so. The objectors will, however, be allowed to make submissions on other matters relating to the application.

Name and address provided.