The horses on beaches saga took a dramatic turn on Thursday with training at Levy’s Point ruled illegal.
Just days after councillors voted 4-3 for training to resume at Levy’s for the next five years, The Standard revealed Warrnambool City Council had new legal advice ruling out the practice.
Levy’s is a Public Conservation and Resource Zone within the city’s planning scheme. An email from city growth director Andrew Paton to all councillors, seen by The Standard, said training was not permitted in that zone.
“The Warrnambool Planning Scheme continues to apply to the reserve notwithstanding the Ministerial consents/permissions granted; and horse training or animal training is a prohibited use on the land to which the PCRZ land applies,” the email said. “For completeness of advice, clarification is being sought from DELWP on the correct boundary alignment to which the PCRZ applies and what options are available to key stakeholders in terms of next steps.”
Councillors were told during debate on Monday that legal advice was “non conclusive”. It is now evident training on Levy’s is illegal, and councillor David Owen, who vehemently objected to commercial training on beaches, called on Planning Minister Richard Wynne not to overrule the legislation.
“I see it as a reprieve,” he said. “It gives us another chance to revisit it. I’ve known all along that we were in breach from info received from the diligence of my friends from Belfast Coastal Reserve Action Group.”
Cr Owen said BCRAG members had been thoroughly diligent with their efforts to stop training on beaches. “The Greens are behind us on this,” he said.
“We should be able to put some pressure on Planning Minister Richard Wynne not to override the planning scheme. The council voted on having horses on the beach but in actual fact they were misinformed and forced to bring it to council when no-one was really prepared.”
Chief executive officer Bruce Anson said on Tuesday there was queries about the legality of allowing horses on the beach under the planning scheme.
Mr Anson said if the legal advice found horses on the beach to be illegal, the council would look at other options.
“Council will have to look to put an amendment to the planning scheme,” he said.
A statement released on Thursday said previously horse training had been permitted at Levy’s Point with licences issued in 2016 under a Ministerial Order from Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio. The council confirmed those licences were no longer valid.
Mr Anson said it was a “a very complex planning and land management issue”.
“The purpose of the meeting on Monday night was for council as the committee of management seeking to introduce certainty to access and use of Levy’s Point beach, subject to this decision meeting all relevant governance arrangements,” he said.
The motion specifically stated subject to any agreement “according with all laws, orders and other legal requirements”.
The Victorian Greens are calling on Mr Wynne to guarantee no decision on allowing horses to train on Levy's Point beach be rushed through before the November election.
The Greens have been steadfast in opposing horses on beaches, arguing that public safety and conservation should take precedence over the demands of the horse racing industry.
"The Greens have very strong support in Minister Wynne's seat of Richmond, and if he prioritises the horse racing industry over what is best for the environment and community, constituents will have the opportunity to voice their concern with their vote in November,” Greens spokeswoman Ellen Sandell said.
"This is a pristine piece of coastline that needs protecting. It is not something Labor can hand to its mates in the racing industry to do with as they please. We know the gambling industry holds sway over Labor. Now is the time for Richard Wynne to show that he won't bow to their demands and instead put the community first."
‘The vote should have been deferred’
Warrnambool City councillors say they should not have voted on a motion to allow horses to resume training at Levy’s Point if there was uncertainty about its legality.
Cr Kylie Gaston was caught in the middle during Monday night's Levy’s Point Beach training debate at a special Warrnambool City Council meeting.
The former mayor, current councillor and Labor candidate for South West Coast, provided the vital vote which approved the Levy’s Beach horse training proposal.
Cr Gaston agreed she hesitated before voting for the motion, which was passed 4-3.
She said she supported it, thinking the motion would be then found to be legal or illegal.
“We were in the debate when the uncertainty about the legal situation was raised,” she said. “Now that situation has to be addressed but it is outside the council's responsibility. My situation had nothing to do with (state) government intimidation."
Cr Gaston declined to comment about how the current illegal situation could be resolved.
"It would have been great if that vote did not proceed. Waiting would have been best, but that was the position we faced at that time," she said.
Cr Mike Neoh, who pushed for the vote to be deferred during debate at Monday night’s council meeting, says the outcome is “null and void” now. At the meeting Crs Gaston, Tony Herbert, Robert Anderson and Sue Cassidy voted to allow horses on beaches, while Crs Neoh, Peter Hulin and David Owen voted against it.
“Governance 101 should have seen a deferment of the item on Monday night, until we got firm legal advice, given the claims of the legality of the matter that were raised with us at the 11th hour,” Cr Neoh said.
However, a council spokesman said the vote would not be negated.
“Any actions arising from the decision – as outlined in the recommendation - hinged on all laws, orders and other legal requirements being met,” he said.
He said Mr Anson’s comment on Tuesday that the "council will have to look to put an amendment to the planning scheme" was presumptuous at best and inappropriate at worst.
Cr Peter Hulin said councillors had not been given enough information about the legal concerns.
"I think it is extremely disappointing that the information we were given is once again found to be incorrect," he said. "There was a lack of checking the facts that were given to councillors.”
Beaches not for training
Belfast Coastal Reserve Action Group has lashed out at city council chief Bruce Anson over his handling of the horses on beaches issue.
BCRAG says “the pro-racing members of Warrnambool City Council and chief executive officer Bruce Anson appear to have had their heads in the sand, thinking they could crash through legal and planning safeguards that protect public parkland”.
BCRAG spokesman Bill Yates said the regulations were clear. “It’s all there in black and white,” he said.
“The rules set out by the planning scheme are right, and the racing industry’s plan is wrong – racehorse training is not an appropriate use of a public beach. Beaches should be enjoyed by anglers, surfers, dog walkers and families without the fear of being run down by a horse.”
BCRAG said Mr Anson failed to disclose to councillors that correspondence from community group lawyers had been received by the council back in September, indicating the horse training was illegal due to planning regulations.
“Now that it is a planning issue, our concern is that the Planning Minister Mr Wynne will feel the pressure from the Minister for Racing, just as the Environment Minister was pressured into signing off on environmental destruction, in order to keep the racing industry happy,” Mr Yates said.
“Our planning laws should not also be victims of the racing industry’s greedy whims.”
The Standard asked for a response from Racing Minister Martin Pakula, Planning Minister Richard Wynne, Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and Warrnambool Racing Club. Despite numerous phone calls and/or emails to all of the organisations listed, no comments were forthcoming before deadline.