DESPITE a raucous plea from environmentalists, Warrnambool city councillors have overwhelmingly voted to allow commercial racehorses back on beaches at Levys Point.
Friday’s fiery special meeting was moved from the council chambers to the Lighthouse Studio to accommodate the huge crowd, where councillors voted 6-1 to return horses to the beach, with Cr David Owen the lone voice objecting against the move.
Training will recommence at Levys for the next few months while a cultural heritage management plan is completed for a permanent location at Spookys beach, west of Levys.
The studio was packed with racing industry representatives and supporters, as well as those against training returning to the beaches, with surfers, environmentalists and Belfast Coastal Reserve Action Group members present.
Mayor Tony Herbert opened the meeting by asking the public gallery, the largest in recent memory, to remain respectful.
Councillors cited economic benefits to the city and region as reasons why training must be re-installed, after Victorian planning minister Richard Wynne wrote to the council to request it change its planning scheme to allow the return of commercial horse training at Levys Beach.
Cr Peter Hulin said the racing industry was “almost a cornerstone of our city”.
“The trickle-down effect to businesses is immense,” he said.
“It has an effect on our restaurants, clothing, hair and beauty, accommodation industries. The horse racing industry is enormous.”
Cr Hulin said the beach near Spookys had been damaged by four-wheel-drives and other users.
“The environmental damage out there is quite staggering,” he said.
“No person has raised the issue with the council about how bad it is. Where horses will be going it is not pristine vegetation, it is devoid of vegetation.”
He said he believed allowing one kilometre of the beach for training would not “affect any wildlife”.
Cr Sue Cassidy said racing was one of the biggest professional industries in Warrnambool.
“It brings high revenue to the region every day of the year,” she said.
She said training horses on beaches had “incomparable benefits”.
Cr Owen pleaded with his fellow councillors to change their view.
In an impassioned speech he said if the motion was passed, councillors would have let themselves, their community, their children and the environment down.
“Our fragile beaches and dunes are not training facilities,” he said.
“You will have been seduced by the racing industry, an industry that seems to have a financial hold over our state government on both sides of the chamber.
“If this amendment is passed it will be a black day for our community … thanks to a council that allows itself to be pressured by the gaming industry.
“There has been no public consultation on these changes.”
Cr Owen finished his speech by telling his fellow councillors they “had the power to stop this”.
“The very best Christmas present you can give your family this year is to do the right thing for our environment for generations to come,” he said.
Cr Herbert said he felt community engagement had been extensive.
“The plan tries to achieve a balance,” he said.
“It suggests horse training on one kilometre out of 22, controlled by Parks officers. I believe the plan balances the views of the community. This plan is not perfect, but I will not let perfect be the enemy of good.”
Cr Kylie Gaston said a strict management plan was “highly desirable”.
She said the new arrangements would result in a “much smaller impact” on beaches.
“I support the racing industry in a controlled environment,” she said.
Cr Mike Neoh said it was a “very sensitive issue”.
“We have to balance all stakeholders requirements, but I do believe in a regulated area,” he said.
“A key issue for me is dune work. Hoon Hill is out of the scope of discussion. I support training on the beach proper.”
Cr Rob Anderson said he thought allowing horses back on the beach was a “fair outcome with the minister’s request”.
Racing Victoria will have to implement car park upgrades, improve the access track, revegetation and fencing.