Mysterious is one word that describes Huon Valley Council’s amazing back flip on development applications, three months apart, to establish a “temporary” caravan park on prime agricultural riverside land fronting on Wilmot Road, Ranelagh.

Last September, council voted 6-2 (in line with the staff recommendation) to refuse an application for a temporary caravan park on this flood-prone land.

Two months later, on December 14 — despite staff still recommending refusal — it reversed its decision, voting 6-2 to approve what the staff report described as a “similar” application.

This perplexing volte-face calls for careful scrutiny by the state Local Government Division (part of the Department of Premier and Cabinet). Its deliberations should consider the following:

— The Ranelagh land in question is zoned “intensive rural” and subject to flooding. A “caravan park” is a prohibited use for the land under the Huon Planning Scheme 1979.

— The conditions imposed by council’s December approval decision stipulate that, at the expiry of the temporary period (three years), “no later than 6 months after . . . the site shall be restored to the satisfaction of the council. This shall include the removal from the site all trace (my italics) of any works, buildings, materials, plant or other equipment . . .”

Temporary? What a joke! The applicant has already put in a new access road to the site and obviously plans to spend hundred of thousands of dollars installing 28 powered sites, 30 unpowered sites, an amenities building on a slab, a sewer line with pump station, a new water line, an underground power line . . .

The very idea that anyone would outlay so much without expecting ultimate permanency is laughable. And the condition of removal of “all trace” has to be a flight of pure fantasy.

— In the September vote on the caravan park application, only the mayor, Councillor Robert Armstrong, and one of his faction members, Councillor Tony Duggan, voted to approve the application. (Armstrong, who expressed strong support for the application, observed that flood-prone land couldn’t be much good for agricultural purposes. I imagine he was soon put right by councillors more in touch with things rural that, agriculturally, flood-prone land can be about as good as it gets.) The six councillors who voted down the September application were Bruce Heron (then deputy mayor), Mike Wilson, Liz Smith, Gary Doyle, Ian Paul and Rosalie Woodruff

The December vote, on a motion to approve the application, was supported by Wilson (the mover), Armstrong, Duggan, Doyle (now deputy mayor), Heron and Peter Pepper (newly elected to council in October). Smith and Woodruff voted against. (Paul is no longer on council, having been defeated at the October election; and Rohan Gudden, after making a “declaration of interest”, absented himself from debate on both occasions.)

— How is it that, of the six councillors who agreed with the staff recommendation in September, three (Wilson, Doyle and Heron) were prepared to ignore staff’s identical recommendation in December? Something must have occurred in the interim to persuade them to go against what appeared to be sound, and consistent, staff advice.

Or have we witnessed an instance of an aberrant reversion to the bad old bugger-the-rules days for which, not so long ago, the Huon Valley Council was renowned? Because council minutes are so inadequate, not even the ostensible reasons some of them changed their minds will be on the public record. I don’t recall that any of them clearly explained their change of heart.

— Why didn’t the applicant, after being refused at the September meeting, appeal council’s decision to RMPAT (Resource Management and Planning Appeal Tribunal) instead of choosing to rapidly submit a second “similar” application? And, given council’s September decision, should the second application even have been accepted for consideration? Valley ratepayers and residents surely have a right to know what transpired among councillors, council and applicant in the intervening three months.

— In light of the complexity of the conditions that Wilson’s motion has imposed on the applicant, it is reasonable to wonder who authored them. Considering that staff recommended refusal of both applications, it is also reasonable to think that the authorship does not rest with council staff or a staff member. If this is the case, who did author the conditions (which clearly involve legal and planning expertise)? And who paid for their drafting? Mike Wilson, as an elected representative of the Huon Valley public, can clarify these points.

— It was apparent from council debate on December 14 that more than one councillor had spoken to the applicant in the intervening three months. This poses the question, were councillors who spoke to the applicant operating within the limits of their responsibilities as elected local government representatives? Why did the applicant feel, after the September refusal, that it could proceed with work on the site? And is there any substance to scuttlebutt that the applicant had reason to be confident that the second application would succeed?

— Scant reference was made during the December debate to the fact that the Huonville/Ranelagh Structure Plan provides for a caravan park on council land adjacent to The Esplanade on the east side of the Huon a few hundred metres south of the Huonville bridge. If that’s where a caravan park is envisaged, then that’s where one should be. What’s the point of plans if they are not followed as closely as possible?

— Now that an appeal has been lodged, council, if it is to defend its December decision, can hardly turn to its own staff for a defence of its decision: a staff that has been twice adamant that an application should not be approved is hardly in a position to mount a case that argues against its own judgement. In each Ranelagh application, staff recommended refusal for these reasons:

1.  The proposal does not satisfy . . . the Huon Panning Scheme 1979 as it is not of a temporary nature and will result in an undue detrimental effect to neighbourhood amenity.

2.  The proposal will cause a loss of agricultural land and will likely fetter agricultural use of adjoining land contrary to the intent of the zone and the State Policy on the Protection of Agricultural Land.

3.  The land is entirely below the 1 in 20-year flood level and the proposal has not demonstrated that the risk to life and property from a flood event is to an acceptable standard and is therefore inconsistent with . . . the Huon Planning Scheme 1979.

By ruling in favour of the applicant, council has left itself in a position where, to defend its December decision, it would have to hire outside expertise. This costs money. Council’s defence in late 2010 of a Castle Forbes Bay decision it made against staff advice is understood to have cost ratepayers thousands of dollars for hired legal advice. With the benefit of Castle Forbes Bay hindsight, council later chose not to defend a Cygnet Channel Highway decision that was also made against staff advice. On that occasion council apparently recognised that to do so would be a further waste of public money.

— Debate on the December application suggested there is much confusion about the responsibilities councillors have when assessing “planning authority” issues (as opposed to local government issues).

Wilson challenged Woodruff to say whether she had spoken to the applicants and whether she had visited the site in question. Woodruff replied that she had visited the site but had not spoken to the applicant because she did not feel it was within her authority to do so. When she later interjected during Wilson’s summing up on his motion to ask him if he had spoken to representors against the application, Mayor Armstrong silenced her and did not ask Wilson to respond.

There were echoes in the HV Council December debate of the Hobart City Council controversy over the Ancanthe Park subdivision (TT, Ancanthe: All That Will Be Lost) in Lenah Valley. Clearly, it is time the complacent Local Government Division (in co-operation with the planning authorities) got around to laying down firm guidelines for councillors when they have to deal with planning authority issues.

One thing is certain: councillors should never speak privately with either applicants or representors other than, if approached, to direct them to the appropriate council/planning authority staff.

— Much of the above is unlikely to figure in RMPAT’s deliberations when it considers the representors’ appeal against the decision to approve the Ranelagh “temporary” caravan park. Its job is to deal strictly with the rules as they pertain to a specific appeal.

RMPAT’s quashing of the Castle Forbes Bay and Cygnet decisions seemed to have woken council up to the fact that when it makes decisions of this nature, it is acting as a “planning authority”, not as a local government council. In the Cygnet decision, RMPAT decided that the application councillors approved should not even have been accepted by council staff. It is not inconceivable that RMPAT will come to the same conclusion in the case of the Ranelagh caravan park decision.

(The preliminary hearing of the appeal against the Ranelagh “temporary” caravan park decision is set for next Monday, January 16.)

Meanwhile, in Cygnet, it was interesting to see that council provided camping space along the banks of the Agnes Rivulet for overflow visitors to the recent annual Folk Festival. On the assumption that campers would have paid at least the per head fee of $7.50 a day that is charged by the adjacent private caravan park (also on council land), I look forward to seeing a tidy addition to council coffers from this source of revenue on its next financial statement.