Rates should be refunded

IN a move met with mixed reaction by the owners of land on the 90 Mile beach, Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass has recommended people affected by zoning changes and now unable to build should be refunded rates and waste charges.

The 65-year-long saga has been an ongoing heartache for hundreds of purchasers of land, and stretches back to the 1950s when a developer lured people, mostly migrants from Europe, to buy land promoted as a 'slice of paradise on Victoria's Gold Coast'.

Ms Glass decided to investigate after receiving 67 complaints from original landowners, or their relatives, who had raised concerns about Wellington Shire Council's handling of subdivision issues.

Immediately after Wednesday's release of the ombudsman's report, Wellington Shire Council said it acknowledged the findings, had co-operated fully with the investigation, had inherited the problem, and had attempted in good faith to resolve the issues by working with landowners, the state government and other stakeholders.

A council spokesperson said "council notes the ombudsman's finding that overall, council's administrative processes have been transparent and lawful".

On tabling her much-awaited investigation into Wellington Shire's handling of the 90 Mile Beach subdivisions in the Victorian parliament, Ms Glass said she wanted to help bring this "unsatisfactory state of affairs to an end".

She said "people bought land in good faith but were in fact sold a pup" as much of the land between Glomar Beach and Golden Beach cannot be developed "at least in its present form".

"Successive environmental studies confirm what should have been seen at the outset, that it should never have been sold off in the first place," she said.

But landowner Vassily Afcouliotis said the ombudsman's report was "a toothless tiger" and would not change the fact that people had lost their life savings on the blocks.

"I'm sceptical that this report will change anything," he said.

"There are so many untruths around this issue and still things that have not been addressed.

"I've spent the entire morning since the report came out poring over it and I'm not happy with the outcome.

"Ms Glass said the council tried to do the right thing, but they didn't listen to the landowners," he said.

Mr Afcouliotis said he probably would not even ask for the rates refund.

The daughter of an elderly widow, Fay Cerda-Pavia, who sold her block to the council just recently after she and her husband spent years paying rates, said she welcomed the announcement, which she described as symbolic rather than practical.

Jo Cerda-Pavia said her mother, now 96 and in an aged care home, would probably be happy that the rates would be repaid because she had to sell her home to pay the aged care deposit.

"My parents were devastated at the time, and couldn't understand why rates notices kept coming," she said.

"It made them troubled so they paid the rates, when in reality they didn't have to.

"But dad has passed away and mum is old now and may not understand fully what has happened, but she needs the money so it is an outcome she will welcome," she said.

Ms Glass had investigated whether the council had acted fairly and reasonably in levying rates and waste charges against the land, acquiring land from landowners at no or little cost, and planning to sell it on the open market.

She said while it was lawful for the council to levy rates and charges against the land, "it was ultimately unfair".

"What is the fair outcome to a saga that has its roots in planning failures more than 50 years old?" she questioned.

"And what is fair not only to the owners of unusable land but to the other ratepayers of Wellington Shire Council and indeed the Victorian public?

"In my view the 90 Mile Beach subdivisions that cannot ever be developed should not be subject to rates and charges - but ultimately, should be returned to public ownership for the benefit of all."

Ms Glass recommended Wellington Shire Council stop asking owners of undevelopable land in the subdivisions to pay rates and charges, and refund rates paid on all undevelopable land since rate notices were re-introduced for flood-prone land in 2006, upon request and where evidence of payment is provided.

It should also refund waste infrastructure charges paid on all undevelopable land in the subdivisions since 2011, upon request and where evidence of payment is provided.

Ms Glass acknowledged the amounts would be small, with the rates paid by the landowners over the years reflecting the low value of the land, ranging from 53 cents to $5.30 per single lot in 2019, and about $55 for the waste infrastructure charge by 2019-20.

She said some of the complaints to the ombudsman raised concerns about the council's 2018 decision to sell four restructured blocks of land in the Golden Beach area, and queried how the council could sell land that had been relinquished on the basis it could not be built on, and whether the council would be profiteering from the sale of land it had obtained at low cost.

Through her investigation, Ms Glass clarified that the land being sold by the council was in a section where blocks could be developed if four individual lots are combined to form one larger block.

"It appears that some complainants have confused the acquisition of land that could not be developed, with land that could be developed if combined with other lots," Ms Glass said.

"In fact the council was not profiteering from its buy-back scheme as alleged.

"The council's acquisition and proposed sale of land generally followed appropriate processes and was not unreasonable."

In addition to her recommendation regarding rates and charges, Ms Glass made three other recommendations, including a program of compulsory acquisition of privately-owned undevelopable land in the 90 Mile Beach subdivisions once the voluntary land transfer schemes concluded in 2021.

In relation to lots that could be developed if combined, the council should work actively with landowners to facilitate sales between landowners, without itself buying land.

In addition, the council should expand information available via its website about the subdivisions.

Ms Glass said at the heart of many of the complaints was an issue she could not fix - the original flawed land sales process.

"The original landowners understandably feel cheated, and their experience sadly reflects the era before planning controls protected our natural environment," she said.

"But my investigation cannot overturn that original flawed transaction, for which the government or council of today cannot be held responsible."

The council said it would seek clarification from the state government on Ms Glass's recommendation that the state government facilitate the compulsory acquisition of all undevelopable land and return it to public ownership, such as Parks Victoria.

The council is also seeking legal advice to understand the mechanisms available to council to implement the rates refund. Gippsland South MLA Danny O'Brien said the ombudsman had presented "a fair and balanced report on a sorry saga that has hurt many families over the years".

"The recommendation to conclude this saga through compulsory acquisition by the state government of any remaining unusable blocks after the conclusion of the current voluntary process in 2021 seems sensible and should be pursued," he added.

There are about 1500 affected coastal property owners who have been recently paying a rate of about $60 per year based on the low value of the land, and the maximum liability of all properties back to 2006 is expected to be about $300,000.

Council will formally receive the ombudsman's report at its August 20 meeting.