Farms Carve-up Puts Pristine Land At Risk

The Age

Saturday October 13, 2007

Royce Millar

The future may not be quite as bucolic as the landscape around Melbourne appears, reports Royce Millar.

THE views across the rolling hills on farmland between Melbourne and Bendigo are often breathtaking. Not visible, however, are the land titles that are the makings of the landscape's demise.

While not obvious to the onlooker, farms have been carved up in subdivisions that threaten to transform panoramic rural scenes into an ugly mess neither suburban nor rural: a kind of hobby farm sprawl.

A new report by RMIT University warns that a vast band of green land around Melbourne is under threat, ironically, from city folk drawn to its beauty and a rural lifestyle. And the damage will not only be visual.

The report, Change and Continuity in Peri-urban Australia, warns that without a "radical" change in government policy, development pressure will destroy the farming product, native flora and fauna and crucial water catchments within the "peri-urban hinterland": the green area that stretches up to 150 kilometres beyond Melbourne's boundaries.

The RMIT report is part of a two-year investigation funded by the federal and state governments. Its just completed findings, released exclusively to The Age, include a case study of the Bendigo corridor. It paints a disturbing picture of ad hoc subdivision, lack of planning and the decline of a key part of Melbourne's liveability: the green farming and recreational area that surrounds it.

Armed with the report, academics, local councils, environmentalists and water experts have banded together to call for government intervention.

"What you're going to get is houses dotted all through the rural area," said RMIT Associate Professor Michael Buxton. "Agriculture will be finished because fragmentation means the lots will be too small to allow farms to be viable."

The Bendigo corridor - taking in part of the city of Hume, Macedon Ranges, Mount Alexander and Greater Bendigo municipalities - has been fragmented into 17,483 small rural lots. Lot owners are entitled to seek planning permission to build homes.

Climate change and drought, however, is renewing attention on the importance of the land for traditional farming and water catchment roles, and as habitat for native flora and fauna.

With drought-stricken farming areas to the north in dire trouble and pressure growing to reduce the environmental costs of transporting food, experts predict a reinvigorated role for food production close to major cities. The replacement of larger farms with small lifestyle properties will slash agricultural production but also soak up water.

All small lot owners are entitled to build dams and dams restrict water flow intro creeks, rivers and reservoirs.

One of the report authors, natural resources management consultant Danny O'Neill, said the cumulative impact of the dams was a major loss of water into catchments for Melbourne and regional Victoria. "It's a matter of small actions adding up over time to have significant impact on water availability," he said.

Already farm dams are diverting large amounts of water, with 60 per cent of surface water captured by farm dams in the Maribyrnong River catchment alone.

The report points to a dire lack of government oversight with no one recognising the dangers of encroaching development to farms, flora, fauna and water.

Land owners and real estate agents have campaigned against tougher planning controls that have made it more difficult to build housing, defending the rights of land owners who have subdivided or bought land expecting to be able to build.

Others see it differently. "It's a bit like driving a car, said Woodend resident and Macedon Ranges Residents' Association secretary Christine Pruneau. "If we all thought we could just go out and do what we want on the roads it would be a disaster."

Macedon Ranges chief executive Ian Morris said a major problem was too much of his municipality was being subdivided into "small unviable farm blocks". "People move to the area because of its beauty. Then they expect to modify it to suit their needs. They forget why they came in the first place."

And settlers inevitably demand infrastructure and services. "They will all want roads made, garbage picked up, school buses and services," said Professor Buxton. "It's dispersal of the worse kind. There will be lots of people living away from townships . . . it contradicts all state policy, which says keep population within towns and keep the area between towns open."

Among various possible solutions, the report recommends amalgamation of lots where they are owned by the same party, reducing the number of new houses allowed. It also calls for a strengthening of farming zones to prohibit homes on small lots and tougher subdivision rules to discourage small lots.

Mr Morris said some compulsory acquisition might be needed where lots earmarked for housing or other development abutted national parks or reserves. He said councils should consider rate cuts to keep farmers on the land, with compensation from the State Government.

Licardo Prince, a spokesman for Planning Minister Justin Madden, said the minister had not seen the report. He said the Government had introduced new rural zones and would continue working with councils to tackle local issues.

Christine Pruneau said all Victorians would regret it if Melbourne's hinterland was not protected, She said the area boasted good soil, relatively high rainfall, good proximity to food markets, the airport, and the railways. "Yet all we're doing is growing houses on it."

© 2007 The Age

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