The long-term future of the international standard Lake Gillear shooting facility is at risk due to political infighting among gun groups.
Such is the depth of ill feeling between the previous eight resident shooting bodies, in addition to licensing issues, that Warrnambool police are taking a keen interest in the situation.
The current position sees some user groups physically locked out of Lake Gillear.
The dispute has a long and complex history, mediation has failed to resolve the situation and now the land owner - Wannon Water - is refusing to sell the land as that move could see some users excluded from the facility.
Wannon Water has categorically denied it has any other plans for the Lake Gillear site.
In 1996, South West Water (the predecessor to Wannon Water) constructed the Warrnambool sewage treatment plant at Thunder Point, which required some of the area that was being used as a rifle range.
Wannon Water purchased and developed land at Lake Gillear, near Allansford, which was suitable for relocating the range.
A 15-year lease with the No. 12 South West District Rifle Association (SWDRA) was signed in 1999, with two 15-year extensions capable of being exercised by the SWDRA.
It’s understood rifle groups date back to 1886 from the original Warrnambool militia.
Over the past 18 years, the Lake Gillear range has become an international-standard regional sports shooting facility, and has been the home of the:
- No. 12 South West District Rifle Association, which has been an umbrella association for:
- Yambuk Rifle Association
- North Warrnambool Rifle Association
- Western District Muzzle Loaders
- Warrnambool Rifle Club
- Lake Gillear Small Bore Rifle Club
- Warrnambool Small Bore Rifle Club
- Warrnambool Clay Target Club
- Archers of Warrnambool Club.
Wannon Water managing director Andrew Jeffers said the current tenancy issue resulted after the first 15-year period of the lease expired in 2014.
He said at that time Wannon Water entered into discussions with SWDRA about the association purchasing the land from Wannon Water.
The SWDRA proposed the purchasing entity be the South West Region Target Sport Complex Pty Ltd (SWRTSC), comprising representatives of all user groups.
The organisation was formally created and Wannon Water understands that it continues to exist today but with only five member groups remaining.
After creation of the SWRTSC, the SWDRA reverted to its original plan to be the purchaser of the site.
“However, relations between the user groups have deteriorated significantly and the SWDRA is understood to currently be preventing five of the groups from using the site,” Mr Jeffers said.
“The SWDRA did not exercise the 15-year extension option, which has now time-lapsed and is now not able to be exercised.”
Wannon Water claims the SWDRA has been overstaying the lease since 2014.
“Our interests are for each user group to have security of tenure and any land arrangement has to be generally agreeable between the groups, be in the community’s best interests and be a step towards the site being reinstated as a true multi-user regional sports shooting facility,” Mr Jeffers said.
Wannon Water wrote to the nine clubs/associations in August this year formally advising:
- The lease with the SWDRA had expired;
- Wannon Water is only agreeable to enter into a new lease with a single entity comprising the nine associations/clubs; and
- Wannon Water is agreeable to enter into interim arrangements for user groups to use the rifle range while the single entity is being finalised.
Mr Jeffers said the sale of the site option had been withdrawn, as the level of dispute between the parties was clearly significant and any sale process was likely to deepen the parties’ dispute.
He said the dispute was essentially between two user group parties - the SWDRA (representing three users) and the SWRTSC (representing five users).
Mr Jeffers said Wannon Water, as the landowner, was attempting to resolve the dispute.
“Dispute resolution has included joint meetings and formal mediation,” he said. “A further mediation proposal is currently before the parties.
“Wannon Water is encouraging the parties to find some mutual ground for the benefit of the sports shooting community,” he said.
The majority of shooting groups at Lake Gillear have called for re-entry, responsible management and community engagement with an aim of growing their sports.
Wannon Water’s role questioned
Wannon Water's role in trying to mediate peace with Lake Gillear shooting groups has been questioned by a chief of the original rifle association tenant.
South West District Rifle Association vice-president Tim Free said the SWDRA was the sole leaseholder at Lake Gillear and its role was to manage other users groups, that since 1999 had come onboard.
He said the SWDRA was moved from Thunder Point to Lake Gillear to allow a sewerage plant to be built in 1996 and other shooting groups came to Lake Gillear at the invitation of the SWDRA.
Mr Free said the SWDRA acted on behalf of the remaining three tenants of Lake Gillear - the SWDRA, the North Warrnambool Rifle Club and the Yambuk Rifle Club.
He said five other groups had not been excluded from the site, but wrote to the SWDRA and declared they were leaving as of December 1 last year.
That led to the locks being changed at the shooting ground.
Those five groups include the Archers of Warrnambool, the Warrnambool Clay Target Club, the Warrnambool Rifle Club, the Warrnambool Small Bore Club and the Lake Gillear Small Bore Club
"They have been invited to return several times, as long as they sign a licensing agreement and pay fees owed, which range from $800 to several thousand," Mr Free said.
The vice-president said the clay target shooters and the archers still operated on their parcel of land at Lake Gillear.
Mr Free said a major sticking point with Wannon Water was that the SWDRA believe club stalwart Graham Dyson signed a lease extension but a copy of that agreement hadn't been found by the SWDRA or Wannon Water.
"We are still looking for documentation," Mr Free said.
"Wannon Water admitted in November last year that there might have have been a filing error on their part and we were told that we still have 27 years to run on the lease. Graham died in November last year, he was our chief witness."
Mr Free said that in a meeting with Wannon Water during December last year the SWDRA was told it did not have an ongoing lease agreement.
"That was the first time we knew there was an issue with the lease. We had received nothing in writing," he said.
"What is clear is that South West Waste and the Warrnambool City Council gave the SWDRA long-term tenure at Lake Gillear, with an option to buy, in exchange for the Thunder Point site.
"And here we are being screwed out of our lease after a mere 20 years."
Mr Free said the SWDRA was the sole proprietor through the lease and had the right to manage the other groups that wanted to use the site.
"The evidence is that other groups have come onboard and been welcomed," he said.
"Wannon Water has taken on the role of being the proprietor, to manage that site and whoever uses it. We believe that Wannon Water are acting outside their charter.
"We've looked at their charter and managing a shooting facility is not part of their responsibilities."
Mr Free said the SWDRA was moved, promised long tenure, built the current facility and anyone who wanted to participate had been welcomed.
"That power has been taken off us because Wannon Water says we have got no lease. The solution is pretty simple, Wannon Water should acknowledge we have a lease and allow us to manage Lake Gillear," he said.
"The great shame is that this situation has split the shooting community. People who have been and were participating are now no longer because of the politics involved.”
The SWDRA vice-president said that on at least three occasions the five groups who left have been invited back into the Lake Gillear fold.
He said the SWDRA was prepared to mediate and negotiate, on the understanding that the SWDRA was the sole proprietor and that fees owed were paid.
The gun groups battling for control
South West Region Target Sport Complex (SWRTC) vice-president Don Haugh disputes that the South West District Rifle Association (SWDRA) was ever an umbrella association for other users at Lake Gillear.
"That's pure fantasy," he said.
"The SWDRA has never been the umbrella organisation. SRWTSC refutes such claims. SWDRA sought participation of other clubs because the SWDRA was never financially viable.”
Mr Haugh said that while the SWDRA held the lease, it was the Warrnambool Rifle Club that was relocated to Lake Gillear in 1997 and should rightfully have been the original tenant.
“SWRTSC clubs, which represent the vast majority of regional target shooters, calls on Wannon Water as landlord to engage with all user clubs that are willing to meet Wannon Water’s objectives of community, to facilitate immediate re-entry to allow this to occur,” he said.
Mr Haugh said Wannon Water previously entered into discussion with SWRTSC to purchase the land.
"The SWDRA held the lease. SWRTSC was formed by the SWDRA specifically to purchase the land because there was no way for SWDRA to financially complete the purchase," he said.
"Prior to SWRTSC formation, the Warrnambool Gun Club president assisted SWDRA to apply for a grant on the understanding that all clubs would participate in ownership.
"A grant of $75,000 was obtained which sat in the SWDRA account for three years."
Mr Haugh said that unknown to SWRTSC, the SWDRA tried to negotiate with Wannon Water to purchase land in its own right and sought to obtain a $50,000 contribution from the Warrnambool Gun Club in April last year.
"Wannon Water stuck to the principle that the land should be purchased for all," he said.
"The SWDRA held out until the Victorian government demanded the return of the grant."
Mr Haugh said SWRTSC clubs were locked out on October 20 last year after writing to Victoria Police to seek clarification of their rights.
"The lockout continues while the SWDRA continues to use our assets at will," he said.
"The five members of SWRTSC represent about 250 members, who are locked out and held to ransom by the SWDRA which has a single digit membership."
Mr Haugh claimed the SWDRA failed to renew the lease in 2014, which left all clubs with no protection to land rights or the multiple assets the clubs had worked so hard to create.
"SWRTSC clubs have invested about $1.5 million since 2007 in the complex while the SWDRA produced a lucrative income from agistment on the land," he said.
"SWRTSC seeks re-entry to Lake Gillear, calls for responsible management, to initiate community engagement and to grow and develop our sports while securing the future for our region's promising elite athletes.
"This has been a difficult time for the shooting sport in general.
"The Warrnambool community has missed out on the economic contributions from lost state and national competitions because of the lock-out," he said.