Image for ‘Minor’ eruption gets major

“I’m determined to change the culture of the council,” Huon Valley Council general manager Glenn Doyle told me nearly a year ago. Doyle, who had just taken over from his boss and long-time council chief Geoff Cockerill sounded like a man acutely aware of the enormous challenges that faced him as he took the reins of a largely dysfunctional community-owned business.

Events before this month’s meeting of council suggest that — even if the controlling seven-man Huon Valley Team of councillors has not yet confronted the dire need to achieve the culture change required to put the valley in safe and progressive hands — GM Doyle has certainly been ringing the changes.

And early this month came news of a council happening that would have been hard to imagine under the previous management. Try to image this unlikely quartet: GM Doyle, planning manager Matthew Grimsey and Greens councillors Liz Smith and Rosalie Woodruff on a joint mission to rescue a situation that if not resolved would leave the council, yet again, with egg on its face and a largely disaffected Cygnet community.

Sometime early this month, these four met in Hobart with Aldanmark, the company that owns and is developing the Cygnet Mary Street subdivision (see ‘Public loss, private gain?’, tasmaniantimes.com, July 12, 2010). That this meeting occurred is recorded in a 10-page “urgent item” that was there for the public to pick up as they entered the council chamber for the July 14 meeting. Smith and Woodruff acknowledge that they are the councillors who were with Doyle and Grimsey at the Aldanmark meeting.

The text of the “urgent item” council dealt with on July 14 is tortuous in the extreme and even those who have been following the Mary Street subdivision saga have struggled to follow its reasoning, which looks mainly designed to put a reasonable face on a secret “minor amendment” deal between council management and the developer. It was a deal that might never have come to light until it was too late to stop it had not one document got out into the community — possibly unintentionally.

One way to understand what has been going on is to look at what has been changed since the subdivision development was approved in March 2008. (For the moment, we will ignore the future of two mature trees — one a blackwood, the other a black peppermint eucalypt — that, if retained, would help hide from those approaching Cygnet from the south the ugliness of the subdivision as it is being developed and the likely ultra-modern “suburb” that it will become if and when its residential blocks find buyers.)

The sequence of events:

— March 2008: Council approves development of a subdivision for 24 residential lots, two lots of “public open space — POS” (1076 square metres in the northeastern corner of the subdivision and 380 square metres on the high, western side to allow a footpath through to George Street to the north).

— March 2010: By delegated authority (therefore without councillors having to be consulted), the developer is granted an extension of the two-year life of the February 2008 subdivision approval.

— April 2010: By delegated authority again, via a “minor amendment” — the one that the July furore is all about — the developer is permitted, for a small payment into council coffers, to reduce the size of the 1076-square metre POS to 200 square metres; and to reduce the 380 square-metre POS and re-route the planned public footpath so that it now heads in a southwesterly direction along the top of the block to an exit point in the Catholic cemetery.

The footpath change means that the elderly, young parents with prams and pushers and the disabled will have to navigate a steep incline and travel possibly twice as far to get themselves onto George Street from the subdivision area.

The April minor amendment — as well as returning hundreds of square metres of planned POS to the developer — allows the developer to add one more residential lot to the subdivision. So, in exchange for what is thought to have been about $8000 (to pay for the reduction in POS), the developer has another house lot to offer for around, say, $80,000. For Cygnetians — especially those who might make their home on the steep Mary Street subdivision — instead of having a pleasant park area in which to rest or play in on their way to or from the township, they are left with little more than a pocket-handkerchief patch. And, if they take the high road to the shops, they will have a much longer walk to George Street.

— May 2010: A second “minor amendment” is approved by delegated authority to allow the road width within the subdivision to be reduced from 6.5m to 6m. Although, again, no one knew this had been allowed, it is not a change that upsets anyone.

— Late June 2010: The proverbial hits the fan when news of the April “minor amendment” comes to light. The giveaway document is sent to Pat Synge, who happens to be a member of the Cygnet Township Development Committee. It is not known if council management’s intention was for this document to get into public hands.

(The council started its “township development committees” a few years back, presumably as a safety valve for communities denied any real say in the welfare of their townships since the 1993 amalgamation of the valleys’ three councils — Cygnet, Esperance and Huonville. The Cygnet committee is chaired by Mayor Robert Armstrong. My understanding is that Armstrong, who as mayor should have his finger on the pulse of the council, never dropped the slightest hint to committee members about the April “minor amendment” to the Mary Street subdivision. It boggles the mind to understand why he failed to realise just how major a “minor amendment” can be.)

Synge receives the document after protesting to council, but only about the likely demise of the two trees. However, when realising the huge ramifications of the April minor amendment, he broadens his campaign to get back the lost POS and to get something done about the footpath change.

On June 28, many of the nearly 70 people attending the first Transition Cygnet film afternoon at the Bottom Pub are signing a petition to the developer asking it to reinstate the POS, revert to the original footpath direction and save the blackwood and eucalyptus trees. Meanwhile, councillors Smith and Woodruff, discreetly, are looking into the roots of the controversy.

— Early July 2010:  The Greens councillors’ inquiries, presumably, lead to a meeting with the developer some time before the July council meeting, also attended by Doyle and Grimsey. It is that meeting with the developer, presumably, that leads to the developer (presumably with a lot of help from council staff) making yet another application for a “minor amendment”.

— July 14: The “urgent item” pertaining to this third “minor amendment” to the Mary Street subdivision is discussed by council. As usual, although Armstrong is chairman when the council acts as a planning authority, he is out of the chamber because of a “declaration of interest”, presumably on the grounds that he is a real estate salesman.

With Councillor Mike Wilson absent in Queensland, the debate is among Deputy Mayor Bruce Heron (deputising for Armstrong as chairman) and Councillors Gary Doyle, Tony Duggan, Rohan Gudden, Ian Paul, Smith and Woodruff.

It is clear that the staff recommendation is going to be approved, even though councillors probably realise it does not fully meet the wishes of the 99 people that signed a petition to council and the nearly 200 who signed the petition that earlier was submitted to the developer. The vote is 6-1, only Paul against it. (Had the recommendation been voted down, the April minor amendment conditions would have stood. Who knows then how Cygnetians would have reacted?)

What this latest council decision does, inter alia, is increase the size of the POS relating to the northeast corner to 860 square metres (still more than 200 square metres short of the original area set aside in this corner for POS).

There is no mention of the footpath at the top of the subdivision.

There is no mention of the trees, although council is now awaiting an assessment of the eucalypt by an independent arborist (in response to Synge’s appeal that, if the eucalypt is found to be healthy, it be retained). The blackwood, it seems, is doomed because it is on the footprint of the roundabout that is to be built to accommodate the road into Mary Street from the subdivision.

To the benefit of the developer, the July 14 “minor amendment” adds yet another residential lot to the subdivision — bringing the total to 26 from an original 24.

So, while Cygnet remains short-changed by about 200 square metres of the originally approved 1076 square metres for the roadside POS, and the footpath and trees issues remain unresolved, the developer can now look forward to about another $160,000 or so in sales revenue.

It is difficult to make head or tail of the “urgent item” document dealt with at the July 14 meeting. What one can conclude is that it has only partly helped council wiggle its way out of a tight spot and assuaged the irritation of a large section of the community.

The Mary Street subdivision remains an issue not yet settled and Pat Synge still intends to hold a public meeting in the Town Hall on Wednesday evening (July 21) to discuss it and future community action. He says: “. . . obviously the focus will change somewhat. The pedestrian access at the top of the block can still be altered to make it more practical . . .”

And, he says: “We have just seen that community concerns can directly influence outcomes even so late in the stage of a development . . . what I would like to discuss at the meeting is how to avoid future developments gradually eroding away the character of Cygnet.”

He says he can think of several strategies that could help and that he is “sure that some of you will be able to suggest others”.

As a member of the Cygnet Township Development Committee, Synge has no option but to put things diplomatically. There are others in the township using much stronger language to express what they think about the behaviour of council. Many lament that their township has had a raw deal since the 1993 amalgamation when it lost its own municipal council.

Cygnet’s economic wellbeing rests heavily on sensitive treatment of its “heritage” ambience. This near-bsiness centre subdivision will do nothing to help the charm of the township. One real estate agent said to me the other day, “Cygnet is no place for subdivisions.” He’s right, but it would be surprising if real estate salesman Mayor Armstrong agrees with him.

(The Cygnet meeting to discuss the Mary Street subdivision grievances will be in the Supper Room of the Town Hall at 7.30pm on Wednesday, July 21.)

— Bob Hawkins is a Huon Valley ratepayer and an advocate for transparency in all democratic institutions. He is not a member of any political organisation.