A $9 million eco-resort planned for Princetown is creating a storm.
Touted as an opportunity to grow Great Ocean Road tourism, Corangamite Shire councillors this week voted 4-3 to approve a planning permit for a 20-room lodge, 20 cabins, 300-seat restaurant, car parking, boat shed, and viewing structure.
The planning application received 177 submissions – 152 against and 25 in favour.
The Standard has summarised the arguments for and against the development presented at Tuesday’s shire meeting.
The man behind the project, Montarosa director Gavin Ronan said there were “no easy sites” along the Great Ocean Road and said he and wife Dana were determined to combine the resort with improving and protecting the wetlands and Gellibrand River.
He said the 49-hectare property combined river, beach and national park access and connected with the Great Ocean Road Walk and proposed Twelve Apostles Trail.
“It is a site that people will naturally want to visit and stay at for nature-based immersive experiences,” he said.
“It’s not as vocal, but there is genuine local support for our proposed development on this site, it’s not a unanimous no.”
Mr Ronan said the majority of development would occur on non-native farmland, above predicted one in 100-year flood level.
“We have worked exhaustively to minimise our physical impact to less than 1 per cent of this wetland, this is principally a boardwalk,” he said.
Mr Ronan said extensive technical work had already been done to bring the project to this point.
“We have done the hard work to show our property can sustain this development, within the planning scheme and to the satisfaction of all referral agencies,” he said.
“We absolutely share the goals of the public and the EPA that our waste water system must be safe and not pollute the river and wetlands, nor the groundwater or surface water and we remain confident that this can be achieved.
Great Ocean Road Regional Tourism chairman Wayne Kayler-Thomson said while visitor numbers along the Shipwreck Coast were projected to increase, the time and money they spent in the region was not.
“The growth of visitors will continue but the region and the shire is not capturing the full visitor spend that we should get from this level of visitation. The state government is committed to the implementation of the Shipwreck Coast Master Plan to improve the visitor experience at the Twelve Apostles region,” he said.
Mr Kayler-Thomson said the best way of adding value to what was already on the coast was accommodation and activities that encouraged visitors to stay longer.
“The Montarosa project meets this need with a focus on nature-based experience delivery for the discerning, socially-conscious traveller,” he said.
“In my 30 years’ experience in the industry I’ve viewed many development proposals and I’m impressed that the project has been exceptionally well-planned and will deliver economic, environmental and social benefits for the shire and the region.”
Twelve Apostles Tourism and Business Association president David Pope said he and many of the group’s members were in favour of the project.
“Currently the average stay in the region is less than 45 minutes and that does not yield to our regional economy as visitation would indicate,” he said.
“The Shipwreck Coast Master Plan identified Princetown as one of the seven visitation nodes to be a gateway to the icons on the coast. This project seeks to meet this opportunity by bravely leading before significant government investment has been secured for the Shipwreck Coast Master Plan.
“This concept will change the community of Princetown, but change is inevitable and it will not be the upheaval of the likes of a 300-room resort – this is a boutique accommodation offering that intersects the high-yielding visitor needs. In the context of other proposals around the Shipwreck Coast Master Plan this is small scale.”
Mr Pope said the development would expand opportunities in the region. He said the public and private investment community were “watching this space very closely”.
“As we look at the region right this second we have two large, seemingly secure, industries under threat, high youth unemployment, due to lack of opportunity, and deteriorating visitor infrastructure. Private investment on this scale is not commonplace,” he said.
Princetown resident and retired chartered engineer Lloyd Honeycombe said he was one of the locals who would overlook the development. He said the hamlet had a history of resisting change.
“I’ve been an advocate for many years that Princetown must have a vision of its future, a plan of what we want and a strategy to achieve it. Attempts to implement this have failed,” he said.
“Most people in the town came there for the peace and quite and natural environment. I was one of those. However, simplistically I recognise that Corangamite Shire must participate in the growth of tourism in the shire.
“When the Montarosa development was first announced there were rumours it would ruin the wetlands, kill the fish, cause more flooding, ruin businesses, flood the town with tourists and cause mayhem on the road. It is now apparent that this may not be entirely correct.”
Mr Honeycombe said most of these concerns had been mitigated in the final proposal and the nature of Princetown and its geography would prevent it from becoming an overrun tourist hub.
“Princetown is the eastern gateway to the Shipwreck Coast and a natural site for limited, specialist tourism,” he said.
Port Campbell Hostel owner and operator John Moloney said he saw the development as an opportunity to increase the tourism offerings along the coast.
“The problem that we saw was there was no one to carry out those eco-type opportunities that abound in the Corangamite Shire,” he said.
Corangamite Shire councillor Ruth Gstrein said across the world there were examples of tourism development in environmentally fragile areas.
“Pakistan for instance not only promotes their wetlands as a place to visit but, importantly, a place to educate visitors about their value,” she said.
“If a Third World country can successfully establish nature tourism opportunities in sensitive landscapes then surely… we should be able to ensure the future sustainability of the Princetown wetlands while offering a rewarding and educational opportunity for visitors to experience.”
Cr Gstrein said any development along that stretch of coast was unlikely to receive popular support but said the Montarosa project would provide quality high-end accommodation that will improve the visitor experience and increase visitor spend in the region without destroying the landscape it sits in.
“It’s well documented that the yield from our visitors is an average of 20 cents each. The Shipwreck Coast Master Plan is designed to change this experience… but we need first-class facilities to entice them to extend their trip,” she said.
Speaking following the council meeting, Not On Princetown Estuary spokesperson Mara Pacers said they would be taking their fight further.
“We are certainly not going to let it lie,” she said. “We are going to meet together to decide what our next action will be.”
In her deputation at the council meeting, Ms Pacers said a diverse range of people had objected to the proposal because they understood the plans would “destroy the things that give Princetown its value”.
Ms Pacers said the development posed flooding risks, as well as the threat of ground and surface water contamination and exposure of acid sulphate soils during construction.
“Applying for such a large development to be built on this site was speculative at best and, at worst, woefully ignorant of the site conditions.”
Friends of Gellibrand River, Estuary and Wetlands’ Judy Spafford said it was incorrect to describe the project as an “eco-development”.
“If allowed to proceed it could destroy a very important existing environmental asset that may be of more value in future if it remains intact and unmodified, both as a very unique tourism area and an important blue carbon storage area.”
She said the plans failed to incorporate sufficient information from recent on-ground studies and that the appeal of new jobs should not override the fact that the application was “seriously lacking” in detail.
“Throughout the entire history of this property it has never been considered for any kind of development because of constant flooding and storm surging impact,” Ms Spafford said.
“What happens if the proposal fails through lack of funding and patronage? The shire would do well to remember the support they gave the Moonlight Head development, which currently still exists after many years as an excavation site.”
Princetown Landcare’s Carol Fulford said the development would destroy an area that has been used by locals and visitors for generations.
“We’re concerned about the environment and social impact of this proposal and that the proper experts are not being listened to,” she said.
“This development is risking people’s lives based on data that may easily be exceeded in the near future. It will only take one flood to exceed the predicted flood levels and hundreds of people will be at serious risk.”
Friends of Gellibrand River, Estuary and Wetlands’ Russell Deppeler objected to statements that the project aligned with the Shipwreck Coast Master Plan.
“There is a site-specific clause in the master plan for development in Princetown. The plan suggests low-key eco-type opportunities. This proposed development is certainly not low-key,” he said.
“What’s more important in the planning process, tourism or environment?”
Mr Deppeler said the majority of the site was classified as a wetland of national importance.
“There are too many unresolved issues and not enough crucial information.”
Port Campbell resident Julie Brazier, who spends much of her downtime in Princetown, said her concern centred on what impact the development on the chosen site would have on the area’s environment and tourism.
“I can see the lure of a $9-million investment but at what cost to what we already have?” she said.
Corangamite Shire councillor Neil Trotter, one of three councillors to vote against the proposal, said despite a long list of conditions attached to the planning application, he did not believe it complied with council, state and federal policy.
“To place very substantial built form, water reservoirs (pool and effluent pond), car parking and levee banks in the form of raised roadways will create a major influence that will impact on the whole hydrology of the estuary and the visual amenity of the landscape,” he said.
“I’ve lived and worked in this area for most of my life. Some years ago I was the local mailman for the Princetown area, during that time I was very familiar with flood events… I’ve seen first-hand the vagaries of the estuary and its flood events. I’ve seen the elusive bitterns on the Old Ocean Road and I’ve been prevented from delivering mail or picking up children on school buses for days on end due to flooding events. As an emergency services volunteer I have searched for victims of drowning in the river. This is not a benign waterway… This is an active flood plain.”
Cr Simon Illingworth said the flooding threat alone should have killed off the development.
“The one in 100-year flood level has been used as a reference in this development, normally I would accept that, the only problem is that the statistics only go a short period of time back, additionally, they’re not true statistics because the opening of the mouth has been artificially opened and, therefore, the statistics are lying to us, they’re indicating something that is not happening. It is actually man-made that is causing this to subside before it gets to the three or even four metres,” he said.
The Port Campbell-based councillor also took issue with the plan for upgrading the road to the site.
“The state government, we have been told, is going to create a new sealed road and a new bridge… what magic bucket of money is that coming from?”
Cr Bev McArthur also opposed the road upgrade. “Is that good use of state government money when our roads are in such a shocking situation?” she said.