Decisive action is needed by Darebin Council to protect Clements Reserve
[First published on Facebook on 13 January 2020]
Clements Reserve is a well-loved and utilised public park that follows the line of Darebin Creek in Reservoir. It includes a playground, BBQ area, shared walking and cycling paths, and is enjoyed by many dog walkers. The future of sections of the park are at risk - in part - due to contradictory advice given to Darebin Council in 2015. Land found to be of “ongoing strategic interest” In 2014, VicRoads notified the 2012-2016 Darebin Council that land at 1-11 McMahon Road, which forms one of the boundaries of the reserve, was surplus to its requirements. In a report to Darebin Council on 2 February 2015, 1-11 McMahon Road (Item 8.1, Appendix B - Protecting Darebin’s Open Space) is shown to form part of an, “...active functioning public reserve.” The officers’ recommendation for the VicRoads site was to rezone it from multiple land uses to a Public Park and Recreation Zone (PPRZ) which would require a full rezoning and Council and Ministerial approval before it could be disposed of in the future. They also recommended that Council initiate “early discussions” with VicRoads to find out their future intentions for the site. The site was subsequently rezoned as PPRZ.
Site 6, Item 8.3, Appendix B - 2 February 2015
On 5 October 2015, an appendix to a Council report noted that the land formed part of Clements Reserve - a neighbourhood park - and that Council’s then Open Space Strategy said that it needed to review, “...land ownership in the creek corridors to ensure there is a continuous ecological and recreation corridor” (Item 9.3, Appendix D). In the same appendix it was observed that the Creek Acquisition Policy only anticipated the purchase of private land and did not consider the possibility of publicly owned land being sold along the creek corridor.
An initial assessment by officers of 1-11 McMahon Road and the rear of 22, and 32-34, Clements Grove, which also fall within the reserve, found that the value of Community Benefits and of Natural Environmental Benefits were ‘high’ for all of the parcels of land.
The appendix went on to state that, “After undertaking a review of the property using the Decision Logic Map, it is clear that part of the land is required for Council purposes and provides ongoing strategic value [emphasis added].” It does not specify which “part” of the land is required. However, the recommendation and its valuation covers the whole of the surplus land within Clements Reserve:
Item 9.3, Appendix D - 5 October 2015
Bizarrely, and without explanation, the report in the main body of Item 9.3, 5 October 2015 had this recommendation which contradicts the recommendation in Appendix D:
“(3) VicRoads be advised that Council has no strategic interest in acquiring surplus VicRoads land at 1-11 McMahon Road, Reservoir” [emphasis added].
A Council resolution endorsed this recommendation and added that the, “...land be transferred to Darebin Council at no cost.” It also sought to have the rear of 22 and 32-34 Clements Grove, which were landlocked areas within the reserve, transferred to Council from the government at no cost. The resolution was moved and seconded by Crs Greco and Laurence, with Crs Villella, Williams and Walsh voting in favour. Crs Tsitas and Fontana voted against the resolution. Absent from the meeting were Crs Li (apology) and McCarthy (approved leave of absence).
This resolution was adopted despite the Council report noting (see p.37) that such ‘gifting’ of land was contrary to the Victorian Government Landholding Policy and Guidelines 2015.
Council given a second chance to save the land
Three years later, on 15 October 2018, the 2016-2020 Darebin Council received a very brief report (Item 8.6) which advised them that VicRoads intended to seek to rezone the land at 1-11 McMahon Road to General Residential (again) unless Council expressed an interest in purchasing the land. The body of the report did not state that the land was in Clements Reserve; only Appendix A named the reserve and it showed the location of both the McMahon Road land and the landlocked Clements Grove land which holds the play space:
Item 8.6, Appendix A - 15 October 2018
The Council report recommended that, “Based on an assessment of the biodiversity value of the Land and its lack of suitability for development, it is proposed that Council does not support the rezoning and encourages the retention of the Land as open space.”
The following resolution was adopted by Council and only deals with the McMahon Road portion of the land:
Minute No. 18-289 - 15 October 2018
On 6 November 2019, at a Darebin Council meeting, I asked a question about the state of negotiations regarding the future of the McMahon Road land after stumbling across the matter while doing some other research (Item 5). I received the following response on behalf of Council from the Mayor, Cr Rennie:
“Discussions between Council and the State Government about the future of the land are ongoing; however, we understand that the State Government is not proposing to rezone it while the discussions are underway.
One of the avenues being explored by Council is the possible purchase of the land. A report to Council with a recommendation about the future of the land is expected to be presented in the first quarter of next year.”
An uncertain future
There is no doubt that 1-11 McMahon Road is important to Darebin Council due to its recreational and biodiversity value. It should have been purchased in 2015 when Council was offered first right of refusal by VicRoads. It is concerning that an internal contradiction in Council’s own report led to a recommendation and a resolution that the State Government be informed that it was of ‘no strategic interest’ to the Council.
This failure in decision-making was exacerbated by the persistent approach by certain Councillors in the 2012-2016 term to try to get the State Government to gift the Council land, contrary to the Victorian Government Landholding Policy and Guidelines 2015. The custom and practice in applying this policy included the offer of substantial discounts to councils (in the order of 45%-50%) provided that they purchased land with an agreement that it would only be used for public purposes. Such a high discount effectively forms cost-share arrangements between councils and the State Government that also works to protect public land from future sale and development.
By the time the 2016-2020 Darebin Council was elected, the futility of seeking gifting of land from the State Government had at least become apparent after the near-loss of open space at the former Ruthven Primary School and the former Lakeside Secondary College, but unfortunately the connection was not sufficient to prevent the loss of the Dumbarton Street grassland (these sites in Reservoir were similarly affected by maladministration dating to the same agenda item on 5 October 2015). This realisation appears to be reflected in the 2018 resolution which includes a request for an internal transfer of 1-11 McMahon Road to DELWP or for Council to purchase it from the State Government.
The fate of the rear of 22, and 32-34 Clements Road remains unclear from the Council reports. The fact that it is landlocked and so close to Darebin Creek makes it less likely that it could be sold off by the State Government but it should be consolidated under Council’s ownership.
A cloud hangs over the future of several large portions of land in Clements Reserve in Reservoir. It will require decisive action by Darebin Council to ensure that the whole of this important public open space and creekside habitat is protected in perpetuity.
Related story: How Darebin Council lost the Dumbarton grasslands
Photo credit: Terry Mason. (The area alongside the fence line and road is 1-11 McMahon Road.)
References from Council agendas and minutes
Minutes - 15 October 2018 Agenda - 15 October 2018 Item 806 Appendix A - Aerial View 1-11 McMahon Road and Clements Grove, Reservoir
Minutes - 5 October 2015 Item 903 Appendix A to C - Surplus State Government Land Item 903 Appendix D to F - Surplus State Government Land
Summary of Surplus Victorian Government Land (Appendix A)
Decision Logic Map (Appendix B)
Individual site assessments - 1-11 McMahon Road, Reservoir (Site 2) (Appendix D)
Minutes - 2 February 2015 Item 801 Appendix B - 2 February 2015 - Protecting Darebin's Open Space