BAW Baw’s councillors are divided on whether small blocks with residential development in active farming areas are good for local producers and rural areas.
This article was first published in the 11 July 2014 edition of the Warragul & Baw Baw Citizen.
At a council meeting last month a motion allowing a house to be built on a one hectare subdivision in Ellinbank narrowly won council approval. Mayor Murray Cook and all three Warragul ward councillors voted against the development while all other councillors voted in favour.
Although the motion seems insignificant in isolation, the shire has seen a number of proposals for small mixed farming and residential developments come before it in recent years.
Councillors have expressed interest in finding out if small farms are viable, unanimously passing a motion at a meeting in April to investigate lobbying for smaller farming zone block allowances.
The size of those smaller blocks, often discussed in relation to hobby and niche farming, is the big issue. Traditionally small blocks are not seen as viable for any kind of agricultural production, however when discussing the motion calling for investigation in April Warragul ward’s Gerard Murphy said “I think it’s exciting when you can do something on 10 acres or five acres or 15 or 20.”
“It creates something for the markets and for the outlets and it’s important to nurture industry and nurture individuals.”
At the same meeting Cr Cook said due to Gippsland’s “high rainfall and good soil we should be able to do more intensive farming.”
The reason for the Ellinbank subdivision’s rough passage appears to be the size of the block – for just under half of Baw Baw’s councillors, one hectare in a farming zone was too small.
For Victoria’s peak farming body, the Victorian Farmers’ Federation, the fact the council is even considering smaller blocks for hobby farmers is alarming.
“Certainly the VFF have had a good long look at how [such small] subdivisions could work, and really the best way to do it is with very small allotment sizes on the edge of town… I’m talking maybe 100 acres (40.5 hectares), but it certainly becomes very expensive for shires to maintain those blocks,” VFF president Peter Tuohey told the Warragul & Baw Baw Citizen.
Encouraging and coordinating small title holders to engage in proper land management could also be a sticking point.
“There’s added problems with those lots and setting up dams for water collection and other things,” Mr Tuohey said.
“Weed and pest management can become costly too.”
For all the effort that goes into securing a small farming block, Mr Tuohey said the farming life was not always what people thought it was.
“Certainly there always is an appetite for people on the edge of metropolitan areas to go rural for a while,” Mr Tuohey said.
“They think it’s fantastic to live out in the ‘real’ environment, but usually they find it’s not quite as good as they first thought.
“There’s issues around sounds and smells and chemicals that are normal farming activities that they find they quite often don’t like.
“There’s always been an appetite out there, but we’re concerned around the realities about what happens when they do start to subdivide those lots up.
“They (small hobby farms) have an impact on the commercial farms that are already operating, they want the commercial farms to change their activities to suit the hobby farmers, which is not really the ideal.”
The Australian Farm Institute is also concerned.
In 2012 the organisation held a conference on managing farm land into the future, which concluded “rural subdivision is a cancer for profitable agriculture close to cities.”
The group highlighted developments in western Sydney as an example of subdivisions gone wrong and said there were two effects of councils allowing small rural subdivisions: elevated land prices and a larger number of unproductive lots.
Mr Tuohey agreed.
“It’s been quite good farming land, but because of the urban sprawl [non-farming people are looking to buy it],” Mr Tuohey said.
“Certainly people are entitled to have a rural lifestyle, but they’ve moved out of those areas and had an impact on that really good agricultural land.
“I think it’s certainly their right if they’re going to pay for that land, but I think that a council trying*to subdivide properties to affect*that needs to look at the cost structures and see how it’s going to affect them and how they’re going to deliver services to those populations.”
The problem of farming subdivision pressure is not unique to Baw Baw. Mayor of East Gippsland Shire and chairperson of multi-council lobby group the Gippsland Local Government Network, Richard Ellis said finding the right balance between farming and development was “going to be a challenge” for Baw Baw.
“I think the councillors are up to it, but they certainly need the support of the community behind them to say ‘look, we understand that it’s not a sleepy hollow, it’s going to be a very active, changing community,'” Mr Ellis told the Warragul & Baw Baw Citizen.
“Population growth brings lots of advantages of being able to get other levels of funding involved, but it will involve a lot of change and decisions need to be made.
“I look forward to seeing how Baw Baw rises to that challenge.”
When it comes to managing growth, one group with more experience than most is the state government’s Metropolitan Planning Authority.
The group has been assisting the Baw Baw Shire Council in the creation of Precinct Structure Plans for Warragul and Drouin.
The plans plot where residential and commercial growth should occur while attempting to maintain rural character.
MPA CEO Peter Seemer told the Warragul & Baw Baw Citizen subdivision of farming land would not be easy for the community.
“If you’re outside of the urban areas [and] you want to have successful farming you need farming land, and obviously if you end up with something that was 1,000 hectares [being] divided up into 100 little [blocks] you’re not going to have a successful farming opportunity unless it’s farming much smaller things,” Mr Seemer said.
“A lot of people have expectations they can put in a lot of little things they can maximise their dollars from, and that’s always an ongoing source of friction and that’s the sort of thing councils work their way through.
“The rural areas… will always be a point of friction, I’m sure.”
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