Max Carter who is fighting compulsory acquisition of his farmland in Marong.

NEIGHBOURS opposing the compulsory acquisition of part of a Marong family’s farm have vowed to take their fight all the way to the High Court, if the state government allows the City of Greater Bendigo to forcibly acquire the land.

Two of the Carter family’s neighbours say they will seek an injunction firstly in the Supreme Court, and the High Court if necessary, should planning minister Richard Wynne agree to the council’s request.

Councillors last month voted to apply for a public acquisition overlay, stating the parcel of land was the only land suitable for such a use in the municipality after an independent panel asked them to look again.

Revealing the group’s defence strategy, neighbour Adele Patterson, a lawyer and a member of the Victorian Planning and Environmental Law Association, said the Bendigo council had done no work in the past two years to address the panel’s 2016 findings, which also rejected a move to compulsory acquisition.

“The only thing they have done in the last two years is write to the Carters saying we want to buy your land and offer them money,” Ms Patterson said.

“There has been no further work as indicated in the panel report to investigate any other available land.

“This has been the biggest issue for the last 16 years.”

Asked what work had been done in the past 18 months to rule out alternative sites to the Marong land, City of Greater Bendigo chief executive Craig Niemann referred to studies completed in 2006 and 2009 that had been unable to identify any other large sites in single ownership on the fringes of Bendigo, relatively free from constraints, with transport connections and not close to residential areas.

“The minister’s approval of the land rezoning (from farmland to comprehensive development) demonstrates the state government’s support of this site being the most suitable parcel of land,” Mr Niemann said.

He said further work the council undertook to justify the need for a public acquisition overlay “included making contact with the landowners again to attempt to negotiate a voluntary sale and further analysis to demonstrate that government intervention is required”.

Ms Patterson said the simplest solution to the 16-year mess was for the state government to give the Bendigo council funds to find another site for the business park, where there was a willing seller.

“The panel report was pretty clear that this is not the only available site,” she said.

A public acquisition overlay did not apply to the Marong land because the use was not for a public use, but a private industrial estate.

Her partner David Cordy, a barrister, said the council were handing planning minister Richard Wynne or his Liberal successor if there is a change of government in November, “a poisoned chalice” of an issue.

“Who will drink from it? he asked, adding that approval for compulsory acquisition threatened to set a precedent that would make it easier for councils throughout Victoria to compulsorily acquire land.

If the Bendigo council gets ultimate approval: “every landowner in Victoria is suddenly unsafe”, Mr Cordy said.

He said it would mean a council could compulsorily acquire land and then sell it to a private sector developer.

Mr Cordy based his analysis on the council’s stated plans that it “would seek to sell the balance of the (Marong) business park to a private party” after it had developed the first stage for an estimated $20 million.

Mr Niemann confirmed its plans to develop the first stage of the park, “however the model to complete the rest of the development has not yet been finalised and there are a number of options to consider”.

Ms Patterson and Mr Cordy also pointed to weaknesses in the council’s strategy.

Ms Patterson said because the application does not specifically name council as the developer, the Carters could sell that land to anyone and they would have carte blanche to do anything within the zoning.

That could include retail, commercial or industrial development. The Carters could also negotiate a no development clause in the sale.

“They have got a council that hasn’t considered the financial implications of a public acquisition overlay,” she said.

“By spending millions to get this land without any services and any costings on services, just shows the cart has been before the horse the whole way along.”

Mr Niemann said the high level of investment required and rate of return on investments meant a private developer was not likely to take up the project.

“It is also unlikely the state and federal governments would allocate funding to a private entity to develop a business park,” he said.

Ms Patterson and Mr Cordy have talked to both the major political parties and have asked for a statement of intention.

“What we want is a statement, we don’t want Richard Wynne to just put it on the back burner until after the election,” Mr Cordy said.

“He could put it off but it has been going on for 16 years, it is just a really bad planning decision, that has got legs.”

– Sharon Kemp