A $9 million eco-resort at Princetown has won Corangamite Shire approval after spirited debate that included claims councillors were pressured into backing the proposal.
A 4-3 vote at Tuesday night’s marathon meeting ended with the green light being given for the 20-room eco-lodge, eco-cabins, restaurant, pool, car parking, boat shed and associated infrastructure on a 49-hectare Old Coach Road site.
The decision came after 11 individuals representing different groups made presentations to councillors for more than 80 minutes. That was after 177 submissions had been received – 152 objecting to the plan and 25 in support.
Cr Bev McArthur, who voted against the planning permit, told the meeting councillors had been pressured by state government officials to approve the controversial development.
“I was concerned with a presentation we received earlier this week from people who work for the state government who were supporting this project and indicated that this was something that we as councillors must endorse,” she said.
"I do take complete umbrage with that method of briefing and that is of great concern.”
Cr Simon Illingworth, after the meeting, said he was disgusted at the situation. Cr Neil Trotter, joined Crs McArthur and Illingworth in voting against the plan and said it was councillors’ responsibility to vote on an application’s merits and not under “duress or influence that any party may apply”.
Corangamite Shire chief executive officer Andrew Mason said a briefing was provided about the Shipwreck Coast Master Plan to councillors on December 13 that did talk about the links between the master plan and the eco-resort. The master plan aims to boost visitor experience and the region’s economy through sustainable tourism.
“Their general comments were that private sector development on that coast was important if we’re going to maximise any investment that the state government makes,” he said.
Mr Mason said the council already understood that there was little point of government investment in tourism and infrastructure without private sector growth.
He said state government officers’ views were one of many presented to councillors. “It was made clear that the decision rests with councillors.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources confirmed representatives met with the council earlier this month to discuss the Shipwreck Coast Master Plan but did not elaborate further.
Long-serving Corangamite Shire councillor Ruth Gstrein describes the planning application for an eco-resort as one of the most difficult the council has faced.
“There is no doubt that this is one of the most complex planning applications that’s come before this council, certainly in my experience over the past 14 years,” she said.
“There are so many competing issues to consider – the environment, biodiversity and landscape, economic development, tourism and several planning policies in the mix.”
Cr Gstrein was one of four councillors to back planning approval for the resort.
Cr Gstrein said 59 conditions and 156 sub-conditions that will form the planning permit showed there was still plenty of work to do.
“There are seven different management plans to be submitted by the applicant and consequently approved, which will cover many of the areas that were listed as primary concerns by objectors,” she said.
Mayor Jo Beard said she couldn’t turn down the jobs the development would create.
“We need a future for our young people and I can’t deny the potential employment of at least 78 people… is a massive boost in terms of job attraction and addressing our declining population.”
Crs Helen Durant and Lesley Brown said the development presented an exciting opportunity for tourism and economic growth.
“I believe the facility will deliver a world-class experience for the visitor and bring many benefits for the region,” Cr Brown said.
Corangamite Shire director of sustainable development Ian Gibb said all referral agencies had provided conditional support for the project.
“The permit conditions that we have proposed are not unusual in the context of a major development, what they provide is basically a framework to manage the future, more detailed investigations,” he said.
However, Not On Princetown Estuary spokesperson Mara Pacers said scientific evidence was being ignored to chase the tourism dollar.
“This decision was about politics and money for developers and investors, and completely ignored the very real risks of trying to construct such a large development, on a site designated as a huge flood risk and acid sulphate soil contamination,” she said.
“If this development is allowed to proceed, we anticipate it will fail. What we want to know is who is going to clean up the mess and the contamination when this happens?”
Developer Gavin Ronan said he and his wife Dana had a proven track record in eco-tourism and would work to protect and improve the surrounding environment.
The development still requires works approval from the EPA, which has asked for more information about the management of waste water at the site.