A young Peterborough couple have been forced to pay $20,000 in legal costs and revegetate 12.5 hectares of land after they were found to have illegally cleared native vegetation on their property.
Moyne Shire Council took Joe and Amanda Gilbert to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal over the removal of three hectares of native plant life, which was protected by several planning overlays.
Ms Gilbert said she and her husband accepted the decision of the tribunal, but argued they never knowingly broke the law and were extremely disappointed at how the case had been presented in the media.
The Herald Sun published a story calling the Gilberts' actions "sneaky" and they had been "busted" after clearing the land "under the cloak of strict COVID lockdowns", allegations for which no evidence was provided and which Ms Gilbert denied.
"It is disappointing how the situation is being perceived," Ms Gilbert told The Standard.
"Our full intention was to tidy up the land and bring back the property into a neat, tidy and picturesque parcel of land."
Moyne Shire Council called the couple's actions a "blatant flouting of the rules" that was "conducted to make way for a proposed house site with a sea view".
A spokesman said "the landholder was warned that a permit was required, and they were stopped from clearing vegetation on a previous occasion".
"The landowner did not have a permit to clear the native vegetation on the property, and ignored a number of environmental overlays," he said.
The council spokesperson said Moyne Shire has an "educate first" policy and the couple were given clear instructions about not being able to remove the vegetation.
Ms Gilbert said "at no stage did we think that we were doing the wrong thing.".
"The land was a major fire hazard and we have only received positive feedback from local residents," she said.
A planning application submitted on the couple's behalf by consultants Cardno in 2020 noted planning provisions made it illegal to remove native vegetation without a permit, but said the couple had no plans to remove any vegetation.
Moyne Shire mayor Ian Smith said council had pursued the case partly to make the point that landholders wouldn't get away with illegal land clearing, especially when it affected significant local flora.
"The area affected is of a significant size and the property borders the heritage listed Great Ocean Road, Bay of Martyrs lookout and Coastal Park. Sadly, the property is also listed as containing the Port Campbell Guinea Flower, a plant endemic only in this area," Cr Smith said.
"This case highlights the importance that landowners who want to remove native vegetation of any type should contact council to make sure they are meeting all the necessary legislative requirements in order to avoid enforcement action and negative environmental impacts."
Ms Gilbert said the couple were "looking forward to revegetating the 12.5ha" of land and ensuring it was restored to the condition of the other vegetation on their property.
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