A battle is brewing over a Peterborough development between residents and the Moyne Shire Council.
Several objectors to the 25-lot proposal claim they have been "denied procedural justice" in the planning process by the council and have taken their fight to the Victorian Civil Administrative Tribunal. The council said all proper processes had been followed.
The multi-million-dollar development would be the biggest of its kind in Peterborough, proposing 17 two-bedroom units, eight one-bedroom units and a cafe fronting the Great Ocean Road.
The developer lodged an initial application with the council in June 2022, for a $13.5 million 33-lot development, which prompted several objections and led the developer to amend the project, removing eight of the proposed lots.
But objector and Peterborough resident Eddie Strengers said when the council provided the amended application to the objectors in November 2022, it sent them the old plans for the 33-lot development, rather than the updated 25-lot proposal.
Mr Strengers said when the council opted to grant provisional approval for the project in February 2023 it still hadn't given the objectors the correct plans. Mr Strengers lives next to the proposed site and said it was "completely wrong" for the council to grant the permit without allowing objectors to respond to the updated plans.
"We're all scratching our head. We've got no idea how they decided to sign off on it," he said. "It's all wrong, the whole thing."
The L-shaped development site has a commercial-zoned section beside the Schomberg Inn pub and a residential-zoned section that wraps around the back of four neighbouring houses, including Mr Strengers' property.
The developer was previously granted a permit for the site back in 2014, getting approval to build a a 34-room motel, restaurant and gym facility. Several neighbours objected to that application and the matter went to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, where the judgement panel backed the council's approval decision, citing the amenity the development would bring to the town.
The then design manager said building would begin by late 2014 and be finished by Christmas 2015, but it never proceeded.
Shortly before the permit was due to expire in 2018, the developer laid a small concrete slab in the centre of the site to show there was still an intention to build, applying for a permit extension, which the council granted. Mr Strengers said the slab had been poured without the developer satisfying several of the conditions of the permit, a fact conceded by the council's then CEO Bill Millard in a letter sighted by The Standard.
The application lodged in June 2022 was technically an amended version of the permit granted eight years prior, but Mr Strengers said it was a substantially different proposal, particularly in its use of the residential zone behind his and his neighbours homes.
In the 2014 plan the residential area was to be used as a car park for the motel, but the 2022 plan proposed building 15 units on the same site across several one and two-storey buildings, with some of the lots as small as 78 square metres. Mr Strengers pointed out at the time that Peterborough had a minimum lot size of 600 square metres in the residential zone, but even in its amended plans the developer had still proposed lots below that size.
After the application received several objections, the council announced in late August 2022 the proposal would be amended by the developer and re-advertised publicly. The council said it had also written to the developer with queries on aspects of the project, but economy and place director Jodie McNamara declined to tell The Standard what those questions related to.
"The amended application will be put on public notice in due course in line with all legislative requirements," Ms McNamara said at the time.
But when the council issued notice of the amended documents in November, it refused to make the documents public, however The Standard managed to obtain a copy.
Mr Strengers said he received an email on November 3, containing the amended documents, but he immediately noticed that while the materials documentation was new, he said the plans were unchanged from the June application. He said he and his fellow objectors pointed this out to the planning department and the CEO.
He said he and the other objectors provided updated objections to the project, and specifically noted the plans they had been given by the council were old drawings and didn't match the changes referenced in the updated materials documents. Nearly four months later, he and the other objectors received a letter saying the council had decided to grant the permit.
"That's when we called them again and said 'hang on a minute, we told you we've never seen these drawings'," Mr Strengers said.
Mr Strengers said two days later Ms McNamara and a council planning officer drove to Peterborough to deliver the plans in person. He said there wasn't much point having the plans after the council had already issued a decision.
The Standard sent the council nearly a dozen detailed questions, asking how a planning officer could issue a decision without allowing the objectors to update their objections with all available evidence. The council declined to answer any of the questions directly, but said "all planning application processes have been followed".
Large planning applications like the Peterborough development, especially those with several objectors, could be "called in" to an open monthly council meeting to be discussed publicly. This process allows the planning officers to say why the application should be approved or denied, and puts the final decision in the hands of publicly elected councillors.
But when the application was brought before Moyne councillors, all except one opted not to call it in. Mayor Karen Foster said she couldn't speak for her colleagues, but felt the developer had satisfied "all the planning issues".
"If you look at the application as it stands, it really meets all the regulations and standards," Cr Foster said.
The notice of decision lists 54 "conditions", areas where the current application potentially doesn't yet meet planning requirements, including revisions to the proposed subdivision of the residential zone behind Mr Strengers and his neighbours. Cr Jim Doukas, who tried to have the application called in, said he was "disappointed the other councillors didn't ask more questions when they were made aware of what was going on".
He said four of the councillors were too new to the council to have any idea of the history of the site and they needed to do more digging before deciding not to call in an application. "I think we don't know enough about this at all," he said.
Cr Foster said she had not been told about the objectors not being shown the correct plans. "I knew that Jodie (McNamara) and an officer had gone down to Peterborough, but I wasn't told that was the reason," she said.
But after consulting with the council's planning department Cr Foster said she was "really comfortable that the correct process was followed throughout".
Mr Strengers said he and the other objectors had formally lodged an appeal with VCAT, principally on the basis they had been denied procedural fairness by not being given the updated plans. But he says he has a range of other issues with the plans, including setbacks, car parks, building and planting trees in a water drain, and non-compliance with flood risks.
"If you look at these new plans, they're so non compliant it's not funny," he said. "This notice of decision is just a shortcut. They are actually short cutting the planning system."
If VCAT decides the council has not followed the correct process, it could revoke the council's decision and order that the application be re-advertised, setting the whole process back significantly.
Mr Strengers said he didn't believe the changes to the residential block were feasible. "If they change that block from seven lots to four, they can never get road access," he said. "The whole thing needs readdressing, and that's all we are asking for."
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Reporter covering politics, environment and health
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