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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

In whose interest – Caltex or community?

A City of Greater Geelong planning officer has effectively re-written a firm's application for planning permission to make it more acceptable.

The application came from Caltex franchisee Milemaker Petroleum, which wishes to build and run a service station near the junction of Jetty Road and Portarlington Road, Drysdsale.

The council officer dealing with the application effectively rewrote it, spending considerable time and expertise to add 6 pages of amendments and conditions to make the application more acceptable. Objectors to the application were not offered such time and expertise.

Whose comments count?
As part of rewriting the application, the officer asked four council departments to comment on the application. The Officer’s Report adopts all their comments. Then the public was asked to comment. At least sixteen local people objected to the application; no-one supported it. The objections were diverse and many were raised by several objectors.

There were many detailed technical objections, showing that the application was an inadequate, superficial document. Basic issues such as safety, pollution and congestion were just skipped over, even though the application came from a firm that operates many service stations already. The officer addressed some technical objections in rewriting the application, while dismissing other objectors’ concerns as wrong or irrelevant.

Re-zoning by stealth
Many objectors had argued that a service station would be inappropriate in a Rural Living Zone, inconsistent with a variety of planning laws and regulations and an eyesore at the town’s entrance. In response, the Officer’s Report (p36) argues that Rural Living Zone qualities at the site in question are largely compromised by its proximity to a busy intersection - and that this is also true of neighbouring properties.

This is rezoning by stealth. Either the site is in a Rural Living Zone or it isn’t. No such dissembling marked the council’s response to a recent application by a local resident to rezone nearby land from Rural Residential to Residential. The council told him firmly that it didn’t want to lose the rural environment. The recent history of development in the area shows that had this applicant been a property speculator or an oil company, he would have received a more favourable response.

Diverse objections dismissed
Other objectors said that the proposed service station would pose risks of fire, traffic accidents and pollution; that these risks, together with the lights and noise from the service station would destroy local amenity (especially if it opens 24 hours/day), inevitably reducing neighbouring property values. Objectors refuted the need for a third service station in Drysdale, especially one just a few hundred metres from the existing ones; and asked why there was no consideration of how the planned Drysdale bypass would affect the junction.

Finally, objectors said that the council had managed public consultation on the application so badly as to prevent many people from commenting on it. This charge was compounded when the council released the 38-page Officer’s Report on 14 April - just two days before a council Development Hearings Panel is due to decide on the application. This gave objectors – including those at work - very little time to respond to this lengthy and complex document.

A clash of interests
This application highlights a clash of interests. On one side is the narrow commercial interest of a multinational oil company – Caltex; on the other side is a local community alarmed by yet another threat to its green space, its character and its values. The decision on whether to locate a service station in a Rural Living Zone is 'discretionary', so the council's Development Hearings Panel can use its discretion to support one side or the other of that clash of interests. Which will it be - Caltex or community?

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