By Rod Duncan, CERES Board Member and Pro bono planning advisor to CERES in this matter.
We spent five days at VCAT last week advocating CERES’ concerns about this proposal.
The plans had been modified slightly from the plans that were advertised and to which we formally objected, but the significant parameters remain much the same. I’m losing count, but I think that’s now 14 or 15 days at VCAT on this matter, with at least one more booked in for April 2019!
The decision was reserved, and will be provided in written detail in 2019.
I was accompanied by the staff representative to the CERES Board, John Burne, for most of the hearing time, and also Katrina Chow, a young barrister who cherishes CERES and provided free legal support, including the challenging task of cross-examining multiple expert witnesses called by the applicant. Katrina’s presence was very generous and unexpected until close to the hearing. Jan Garood, Site Groups Representative to the Board, was also present for the full hearing (not as a Board member, but representing a long list of admirers of CERES and users of its facilities) and delivered some incisive cross-examination of inaccurate or questionable evidence.
I’m comfortable that together we have given CERES’ concerns about the adverse implications of this proposal upon CERES and the wider Merri Creek open space corridor, and the prospect of their character being diminished, eroding the pleasure, benefit and effectiveness of visitors and programs. I feel we got our points across strongly and were able to challenge and test the dubious rationale that this was a reasonable response to the context of the site.
The strength of our case benefited from a variety of specialist and technical contributions that assisted and informed our case. This included Jeremy Pearce and his firm Adept Surveys, Nick Tweedie SC, John-Paul Maina of Impact Traffic, Nathan Alexander (Alexander Urban), along with numerous suggestions, ideas, encouragement and support from members and supporters. While not on our side in this matter, even some expert witnesses for the proponent shared their admiration for CERES with comments such as referring to the “amazing community asset to the east” (of the site).
VCAT could support Moreland Councillors’ refusal, the approval (with some changes) recommended by Council Officers, or approve the application subject to substantial changes (such as requiring reductions in scale, height or detail). The one-person Tribunal did not give any impression about the likely decision. Whichever of these decisions eventuates, the outcome will be significantly moderated from the initial proposal in 2017. VCAT’s decision is final, except for any challenge to legal process flaws, not merit.