Waiting on rate return

Wellington Shire Council will wait on legal advice before it decides whether to act on the Ombusmans recommendation to repay rates and charges to owners of undevelopable land in Golden Beach.
Wellington Shire Council will wait on legal advice before it decides whether to act on the Ombusmans recommendation to repay rates and charges to owners of undevelopable land in Golden Beach.

WELLINGTON Shire Council will wait on legal advice before deciding if it fully supports a recommendation to repay rates and charges paid by owners of undevelopable land along the 90 Mile Beach.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass earlier this month released a report into council's handling of 90 Mile Beach subdivisions, handing down four recommendations.

While council supports the recommendation that it actively facilitates the sale of single allotments between landowners with itself acquiring the land and to update its website to communicate information to affected landowners, it only supported "in principle" the suggestion regarding rates.

The Ombudsman recommended council remove rates and waste infrastructure charges levied against all undevelopable land in the affected area, and, as a gesture of goodwill, refund all rates and waste infrastructure charges paid since 2006 and 2011 respectively.

Council's support of this recommendation, which could cost it about $300,000, is dependant on receiving legal advice that confirms the legislative ability to implement the plan.

Council supported the fourth recommendation, for the state Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning to work with council on a program to compulsorily acquire privately-owned undevelopable land after the voluntary assistance scheme finishes in 2021. The acquired land will be incorporated into the Gippsland Lakes Coastal Park.

The issue goes back to the 1950s, when developer Willmore and Randell lured people, mostly migrants from Europe, to buy land promoted as a "slice of paradise on Victoria's Gold Coast".

The land between The Honeysuckles and Paradise Beach was subdivided into 11,800 small lots before the introduction of planning control. Much of the area is now inappropriate for development, because of it being subject to flooding and a lack of services.

Ms Glass begin her investigation after receiving 67 complaints from original landowners, or their relatives, who had raised concerns about council's handling of subdivision issues.

During Tuesday night's Wellington Shire Council meeting, councillor Darren McCubbin admitted it had to untie a "Gordian knot" - an extremely complex problem.

"There was a number of authorities that stood back, I think that the importance for us is that we don't stand back any longer, that we get involved and determine an appropriate and proper response moving forward," he said.

"I absolutely understand, to those people that are caught up in this terrible scheme, that there will never be any compensation, never be any words from me or from the Ombudsman that will take back that terrible thing that was done to them by Willmore and Randell.

"The Ombudsman's report, which went through (council's response to the issue), absolutely suggested that council's difficult and complex job was done appropriately."

Cr McCubbin was concerned with the precedent which could be set for the rest of the shire, if council refunded the rates and charges.

Cr McCubbin said living or owning property in Wellington should come with the obligation to pay rates.

"It is not a fee for service, although I will say along the 90 Mile Beach there is a number of servicing that we are doing," he said.

"For example, there is fire mitigation that we are doing along the 90 Mile Beach, there is a dedicated officer who is working through the issues that have been brought forward via the 90 Mile Beach subdivisions.

"Plus the people also have the right to vote. There is an obligation, I think, with that, that they pay part of the rates."

A formal response to the recommendations will be presented within two months.