Tarrone Lane neighbours' dispute remains stuck in the mire

TARRONE farmer Pierre Johnson has vowed to fight Moyne Shire until he dies.

According to Mr Johnson, his decade-long struggle against the shire, his neighbour Dr Vincent Lee and the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) over a couple of unused roads is no longer just about him. 

It has become a symbolic struggle of the little man standing up against a bureaucracy he sees as “crooked” and “criminal”.

Mr Johnson won’t say how much the battle has cost him and he contends it doesn’t keep him awake at night.

But it has taken its toll. 

Those who know of his struggle agree that his 10-year fight has had a detrimental effect on not only his bank balance, but also his emotional state.

If he does win — which seems increasingly unlikely — many would be justified in asking: “Was it worth it?”

“You couldn’t do it if you had a family,” Mr Johnson told The Standard.

But he’s adamant he will keep fighting “til I die”.

“Someone has to stand up to these people,” he said.

“I have to stand up for what’s right. You’ve got to fight. I’m not just going to roll over.”

Those familiar with the issue agree it has gone on so long that it has become hard to know what outcome would satisfy Mr Johnson, or whether a satisfactory outcome is even possible. 

Even Mr Johnson said he expected to lose his recent Supreme Court case, yet he continues to wage his war. 

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THE Tarrone Lane saga is about two unused roads — one on Dr Lee’s property that Mr Johnson wants opened and one on Mr Johnson’s property that Dr Lee wants opened.

Dr Lee owns property on either side of a 74-hectare paddock that Mr Johnson owns. Dr Lee wants an unused road across the paddock reopened to allow easier access between his two properties.

Mr Johnson opposes this because he fears the threat of bovine Johnes disease (BJD), which he claims is present on Dr Lee’s property. 

The second road is one Mr Johnson wants to use to gain access through Dr Lee’s property, despite his fears of BJD. 

The road would give him access to the far end of the same 74-hectare paddock during winter, at which time the paddock becomes swamp-like. Mr Johnson said he received permission from Moyne Shire to open the road in 1995, although it is understood he never used it.

When Dr Lee bought his property, he moved an irrigator across that unused road, effectively blocking it, to which Mr Johnson objected. Dr Lee was unaware of Mr Johnson’s application to use the road and it is understood the application has long since lapsed.

Unwilling to relocate his irrigator on his own land, Dr Lee and Moyne Shire suggested a compromise with Mr Johnson — another road would be built through Dr Lee’s property for Mr Johnson to use.

But that road is effectively unusable because of poor construction and frequent flooding. Mr Johnson, who contributed $15,000 to the road, said: “They gave me a road and it wasn’t what I paid for and it wasn’t where I wanted it”.

Mr Johnson also fears the road Moyne Shire built is contaminated by BJD. A Natural Resources and Environment (now DSE) letter from 1999 to the previous owner of Dr Lee’s property confirms the presence of the disease. Thirteen years on, the BJD status of Dr Lee’s property is unknown.

Similarly, the BJD status of Mr Johnson’s property is unknown. While none of his cows have been struck down with the disease, he can’t say for certain whether any of the cows on Dr Lee’s property have it either.

A vet’s statement submitted to court stated that the vet believed Dr Lee’s property to be a part of a BJD test and control program as recently as 2006. 

Furthermore, another vet’s letter to Moyne Shire states that if a program is in place to eradicate the disease from Dr Lee’s farm (Mr Johnson refuses to have his herd tested) then it was just as likely “manure from (Mr Johnson’s) cows could potentially infect Dr Lee’s herd”.

The recent Supreme Court hearing refused to hear evidence on the BJD status, deeming it irrelevant.

 Mr Johnson’s own testimony from a previous VCAT hearing indicates he knew about the BJD status of Dr Lee’s property prior to Dr Lee purchasing the farm in 2001.

Despite this he pursued the opening of a road through Dr Lee’s land, despite the potential risk of infecting his own herd.

Mr Johnson said that when he uses the track Moyne Shire built through Dr Lee’s property, he then drives to Port Fairy or Warrnambool to have his ute cleaned, in case he spreads the disease on his own property.

How this track’s potential for contamination differs from the other road Mr Johnson wants opened through Dr Lee’s property is unknown — a vet’s statement submitted to court states measures can be taken to lessen the risk of the disease spreading, but not remove the risk.

It is not clear why Mr Johnson does not build his own track through his 74-hectare paddock to enable access to its far reaches during winter.

When this is put to Mr Johnson, he said “it would cost a fortune” and claims that it would be “blocking a waterway”.

A letter from Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority (GHCMA) in 2011 backed this suggestion, noting “any road built directly across this area … would tend to obstruct and pond floodwater on (Mr Johnson’s) land”.

Yet the GHCMA also “signed off on an approved plan to build a road — they’re completely happy with the engineer’s plans that have been done”, according to Dr Lee.

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VINCENT Lee has rarely spoken to The Standard regarding the issue, aware that “the underdog farmer v the land-owning doctor neighbour” scenario has the potential to portray him as the villain.

He agreed to talk to put his side of the story forward, saying it was “a long and drawn out saga which has come to a sad and sorry end”.

“Moyne Shire and DSE were placed in an impossible situation,” he said. “Having granted Mr Johnson the right to open a road through a neighbour’s farm, they were then asked by him not to afford the same privilege to his neighbour (Dr Lee).

“Throughout, his arguments have attempted to justify why it was appropriate for Moyne Shire and DSE to approve his road, but not his neighbour’s road — in identical circumstances. Not surprisingly, when these arguments were heard in VCAT and the Supreme Court, his case was repeatedly dismissed.”

Dr Lee noted Mr Johnson’s battle had come at a large cost to Moyne’s ratepayers.

“Moyne Shire Council now faces the unsavoury task of recovering $300,000 of ratepayers’ funds it spent to defend a decision it had no choice but to defend,” Dr Lee said.

“Every opportunity was given to Mr Johnson to call off the legal proceedings at every stage. From the very beginning, every attempt was made to compromise by all of the other parties.

“These attempts included offers of a land exchange, alternative and more convenient routes for the road, offers to buy the land, court mediation, numerous offers by the other parties to end litigation and for parties to pay their own costs.

“These offers were made right up to the last days, just before the Supreme Court case. Unfortunately all offers were rejected by Mr Johnson.”

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AFTER 10-and-a-quarter years, “three or four” barristers and an unknown sum of money, Mr Johnson will fight on.

His next battle will likely be against the DSE after the Supreme Court ruled in September that Moyne Shire had the right to refer to the DSE Dr Lee’s request to reopen the unused road on Mr Johnson’s land.

In the meantime, Mr Johnson says he continues to receive phone calls from Moyne Shire councillors, council staff and Dr Lee suggesting Mr Johnson simply sell his paddock to Dr Lee.

“I’ve been approached over and over again about this paddock between the two properties. Why should I have to sell?” Mr Johnson said.

It’s all part of what he sees as a broad conspiracy.

He said he would keep fighting.

The question remains whether the cost of the battle will be worth it.

mneal@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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