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  • Writer's pictureSerena O'Meley

Darebin Council must pick up the ball to keep Merri Creek land in public hands

[First published on Facebook 8 May 2016]

The purpose of the following chronology is to share my research into Darebin Council’s decision-making process in relation to the proposed rezoning of 2ha of land adjoining the Merri Creek, at the rear of Radford Road, Reservoir. The site, which was part of the former Lakeside Secondary College, is of environmental and recreational significance to the community and has been maintained by Darebin Council and interest groups for around 40 years. It is now at risk of being rezoned and sold off as industrial estate with the rest of the former school site despite the fact that Council determined that it is, "required for municipal purposes", and the former state government was advised that the, "Council is interested in acquiring an interest in the land” (Minutes 15 September 2014).

  1. Darebin Environment Reference Committee (ERC) minutes from 25 June 2014 show that committee members made inquiries about the future of the land but they were told that they were unable to advocate to external agencies due to their advisory role.

  2. According to a resolution carried unanimously on 15 September 2014 Council wrote to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) agreeing to its offer to impose an easement on the land, one metre either side of the Merri Trail. This easement is now in place.

  3. The resolution also endorsed the Mayor to write to the Minister for the Environment requesting that the full parcel of land adjoining the Merri Creek be declared Crown Reserve, with Council appointed as its Committee of Management. The minutes show that the elected councillors always anticipated that the government might not make the land Crown Reserve and that Council might need to negotiate with the future owners of the land instead.

  4. There is no explanation for why the elected councillors did not decide to purchase all (18,760m2 at $925,000) or part (9,095m2 at $230,000) of the land when Council had the budget to do so. They appear to have decided that the then Liberal government must purchase the land and there was no fall-back position for keeping the land in public hands.

  5. There is no information about whether or not Council entered into a Section 173 Agreement in order to put binding conditions on the future use of the land which was one of the options proposed by DEECD.

  6. The Andrews Labor government was sworn in on 4 December 2014. I have not be able to find any record of the Darebin Council lobbying the new government in relation to the land in the council minutes.

  7. DEECD wrote to Darebin Council on 2 September 2015 once again offering it first option on the land. Council failed to respond to this correspondence.

  8. Darebin Council’s natural heritage strategy was adopted on 5 October 2015 and discussion in the 6 October 2015 ERC meeting about the Lakeside Secondary College site was deferred until its next meeting.

  9. On 25 November 2015 the ERC again inquired as to the fate of the land and was told that, “...the planning process will ensure that both Darebin and the creek management committee will be referral bodies regarding the protection of the significant biodiversity values” and there was “...discussion around what advocacy was needed to protect the land.”

  10. I have been unable to find any reports or council minutes in 2016 outlining further actions.

None of the correspondence from either the current or previous Victorian state government was available at the time that this analysis was written. Based upon the sources to hand it looks like Darebin Council made a decision back in September 2014 that it would not purchase the land adjoining Merri Creek and that the buck would stop with the then Liberal state government. After the change of government to Labor in late 2014, it appears that the Council dropped the ball on its lobbying efforts, despite reminders from its own Environmental Reference Committee and a letter from DEECD on 2 September 2015 to which it did not respond. Council urgently needs to pick up that ball and ensure that this important parcel of land remains in public hands. Further information: Darebin Council alienates senior citizens in land zoning debacle. ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Sources in chronological order 25 June 2014 - ERC Minutes 6. General issues: 30 Radford Rd – proposed sale of land by Victorian Government - formerly Lakeside Secondary College. Council is presently negotiating with the State Government that the creek frontage become Crown Land with Council as Committee of Management or that land be sold to Council for a nominal or discounted fee. As an advisory role to Council DERG is unable to advocate on Council’s behalf. Individuals and groups like Friends of Merri Creek are able to take up an advocacy role in regard to securing the land for open space and biodiversity purposes.” Cr Trent McCarthy, Cr Angela Villella both apologies.

4 August 2014 - Council Minutes The notice of motion notes the contribution of interest groups Merri Creek Management Committee (MCMC) and Friends of Merri Creek (FoMC) and $7500 from Darebin Council to maintaining an area regarded as high value to the area. Authorised the mayor/officers to “Endorse the positions of MCMC, FoMC and Bicycle Network and seek to have the land adjacent to the college site gifted to the Darebin Council and/or another entity to allow for continued access, maintenance and enjoyment by the community.” Council undertook to write to the DEECD and other government authorities and to receive a report back by its October meeting. There is no information in the minutes about whether or not the report-back took place. All councillors were present.

15 September 2014 - Council Minutes The minutes of this meeting states that: “A review of Council’s strategic documents and consultation with internal service managers and external stakeholders has been undertaken. It has been determined that land at the rear of the site is required for municipal purposes and that the DEECD be advised that Council is interested in acquiring an interest in the land.” The accompanying Council Report on the land including photos, scale drawings of the site, and four recommendations for action made by the DEECD on 11 August 2014: “Option 1 Council negotiates to purchase from DEECD, land from 2 metres east of the Trail to the Merri Creek. Land area is approximately 9,095m2. Indicative value is $230,000 Option 2 Council negotiates to purchase from DEECD, land from the existing oval fence to the Merri Creek. Land area is approximately 18,760m2. Indicative value is $925,000. Options 3 Council and the DEECD enter into a Section 173 agreement to protect the Merri Creek Trail. The agreement is registered on title and DEECD then sells the whole site after the land is rezoned. Option 4 DEECD grants an easement to Council over the Trail and land within one metre on either side of the Trail path.” The council resolution itself differs markedly from the DEECD recommendations: “COUNCIL RESOLUTION MOVED: Cr. B. Li SECONDED: Cr. A. Villella THAT Council: (1) Endorse the Chief Executive Officer to write to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development accepting their offer of an easement over the Merri Creek Trail and to one metre either side at the rear of 21-29 Radford Road, Reservoir. (2) Endorse the Mayor to write to the Minister for Environment: a) Requesting declaration of the 18,760m2 of land at the rear of 21-29 Radford Road as a Crown Reserve for the purposes of park and conservation. b) Offering to act as Committee of Management for the land at the rear of 21-29 Radford Road, Reservoir and accepting all costs for maintenance. c) Noting that whilst the Environmental Significance Overlay would provide protection against removal of indigenous vegetation on the site, it does not prevent development or fencing off the land or provide for future maintenance of the land. (3) Authorise the Chief Executive Officer to negotiate with the owner/s of the land to protect the conservation parkland at the rear of the site and to arrangements for the future maintenance of the site in the event that the State Government fails to declare the land a Crown Reserve and should the land be sold to private interests. CARRIED UNANIMOUSLY” All councillors were present.

6 October 2014 - ERC Minutes Minutes state: “The Natural Heritage Strategy was adopted on 5 October by Council. We will respond to queries relating to Lakeside College land at the next meeting.” Cr Trent McCarthy present, Cr Angela Villela an apology.

October 2014 - Election caretaker period

4 December 2014 - Andrews State Government sworn in

2 September 2015 - Letter from DEECD DEECD wrote to Darebin Council for a second time offering the land for them to purchase. (Letter has been sighted but a copy was not provided.)

25 November 2015 - ERC Minutes 3. Matters arising from minutes: Lakeside College – The bikepath is protected by an easement and the planning process will ensure that both Darebin and the creek management committee will be referral bodies regarding the protection of the significant biodiversity values. The State Government has not progressed with the sale and this would be the next point for Council action. There was discussion around what advocacy was needed to protect the land and what Council had resolved in the past.”

Cr Steven Tsitas, Cr Trent McCarthy both present.

No further information could be located in the Council minutes about the rezoning and potential sale. Photo credit: Darebin Council Report 15 September 2014. Panorama photograph of the bicycle path and the land at the rear of the 21-29 Radford Road

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