A 16-year battle over 311 hectares of Marong farmland this week became a classic Australian movie plotline featuring compulsory acquisition and a land owner defiantly withstanding pressure to sell.
But this time the City of Greater Bendigo dramatically raised the stakes by declaring central Victoria’s economic future was at risk if it failed to convert land the Carter family has farmed for more than 100 years to industrial use as a business park.
Chief executive Craig Niemann said local manufacturers were telling council they were ready to plough in millions of dollars in capital investment, and they wanted to spend in Bendigo, but there was no suitable land available.
He said they had been patient for 16 years but they may have to look elsewhere to expand.
Councillors will vote next Wednesday whether to apply to planning minister Richard Wynne for an overlay that will start the process of compulsory acquisition of the land.
Landowner Max Carter said he was fairly sure councillors would do just that, making it another step in the process that had failed to treat him and wife Pauline fairly.
“They haven’t done the right thing at all, they have done the wrong thing all the way,” Mr Carter said, referring to the four sets of councillors he had dealt with through the years.
He said he had heard from none of the existing councillors and had attempted to contact them by email but had received no response.
“It looks like councillors who are only in for one term are going to take down a 100-year business,” Mr Carter said.
Mr Niemann said the council had acted with integrity when it sent by letter in early 2018 a monetary offer for the land based on an independent valuation.
“We think it was a fair and reasonable offer for the land and it was rejected,” Mr Niemann said.
“But that was one of the things we needed to demonstrate to the minister, that we had made a fair and reasonable offer.
“There was a response, but it was that (the Carters) didn’t want to have a conversation.”
Nor were they interested in conciliation, facilitation or meeting through independent parties, he said.
“You can argue about whether the right decisions were made right back when, I had conversations quite a number of years ago with the Carters and right back then they were saying, we don’t want to sell,” Mr Niemann said.
“We have gone back over and over this a number of times and said, is this right site (and) we think it is.
“The council has changed a number of times in that period.
“We have been clear in the intent in the strategic work that has gone into it and we still think it is the right thing to do.”
In 2004, the council picked the Marong farmland and has refused to consider any alternative site since.
In its favour, the land is located on the major freight route that is the Calder Highway, and on the opposite boundary sits beside the decommissioned Inglewood to Eaglehawk rail line.
The council has also argued the park would create 3500 jobs and transport routes to its location would reduce heavy vehicle traffic through Bendigo.
But Mr Carter said the move would bring added stress and uncertainty to the viability of this family’s business.
The 311 hectares the council wants for the business park accounts for more than a third of the total landholding on which Mr Carter and his wife Pauline live, but to lose it would mean the business was overcapitalised and overstocked.
While an independent state government panel was not convinced by their argument in 2016, it did count their unwillingness to sell, and the availability of other suitable land for industry, as a factor in not recommending a public acquisition overlay then.
But the panel did recommend rezoning the Carter’s land from farming to comprehensive development, ultimately paving the way for compulsory acquisition.
Mr Niemann said development of a business park would still take years if acquisition was approved, and would cost up to $30 million for the first stage.
But next Wednesday’s vote was council taking a leadership role in keeping “Bendigo open for business” as well as helping less well off, neighbouring municipalities by opening up land they also desperately need.
– Sharon Kemp