Words and pictures by Keryn Reynolds
Buninyong residents have been confused and shocked by recent residential zone changes in the small community that could, in theory, see housing lot sizes massively reduced and much denser development.
Meanwhile behind the scenes, there are shenanigans that have left Labor accusing the state government of putting the character of the area at risk.
Fears about rapid over-development of the town have increased, with Labor’s Geoff Howard accusing the coalition of bungling the planning process, and Liberal’s Mr Ben Taylor accusing Mr Howard of running a scare campaign.
It all began in the middle of last month, when state Planning Minister Mr Matthew Guy announced that Buninyong would be a General Residential Zone (GRZ) ‘to ensure that there is a steady continuation of appropriate housing developments.’ In a GRZ, minimum lot sizes are 300 square meters.
Minimum lot sizes in Buninyong have traditionally been 800 square meters.
When Planning Minister Matthew Guy later announced the zoning changes in Buninyong were only ‘temporary’, both residents and state election candidates were left shaking their heads.
Mr Guy’s move, based on the recommendations of his advisory council, went against a request by Ballarat Council that Buninyong should be a Neighbourhood Residential Zone (NRZ), with minimum lot sizes of 800 square meters. The advisory council had asked Ballarat Council to do more work to justify its position.
Controversy was quick to break out.
The Liberal candidate Mr Taylor, initially welcomed the announcement of the GRZ saying ‘The residents of Buninyong and Ballarat deserve to have certainty about the type of development they can expect in their area.’
But Buninyong’s community website reported that ‘many residents were shocked’ by the threat to the town’s ‘character and our quality of life.’
In a community meeting on 2 October, Labor’s Mr Howard and the Shadow Minister for Planning, Mr Brian Tee, told local residents they should be concerned that developers could now can ‘as of right’, subdivide residential lots to 300 square meters.
‘If you’ve got a 900 square meter lot, that can now be divided into three sub-blocks without going to council. The first you will know about it is when the bulldozer turns up,’ Mr Howard said.
‘The charm and rural landscape of Buninyong will be lost. The risk is Buninyong becomes another suburb of Melbourne. Our concern is that the floodgates will open with developers,’ Mr Tee said.
Labor’s Mr Howard told UniPollWatch that the zone changes had significantly altered the status quo ‘leaving Buninyong open to overdevelopment and taking away the opportunity for residents and council to object.’
When questioned about the zone changes on the same day as the community meeting, Minister Guy told The Courier, that they were ‘temporary’, ‘A more permanent zoning of 800 square meters as requested by the City of Ballarat would be in place in the area within the next two months,’ he said.
Mr Guy did not say why the GRZ zoning had been applied at all, if the changes were so temporary.
Things were about to get stranger. Investigations by UniPollWatch resulted in the revelation that Mr Guy’s changes were gazetted just last week – on 9 October. Neither Mr Howard nor Mr Taylor knew this until informed by UniPollWatch.
Mr Howard told UniPollWatch he was ‘stunned’ by the news. He had believed the amendment was gazetted last month.
Then, yesterday, Mr Guy told UniPollWatch that it was entirely up to the Ballarat council to submit a planning scheme amendment to him if it wishes to change most of Buninyong back to the lower density Neighbourhood Residential Zone.
Mr Guy said ‘There is no reason why it can’t change in two months,’ depending on when the council made its planning scheme amendment.
‘I suspect council will want to put it through very quickly and we are very supportive if that’s what they want to do,’ Mr Guy said.
Ballarat’s General Manager of City Strategy, Ms Natalie Reiter, told UniPollWatch yesterday that council would consider the matter next week, on 22 October.
Ms Reiter said that council had previously recommended a NRZ in Buninyong, and was now developing the Ballarat Strategy, ‘a long term vision for Ballarat to 2040,’ to consider future land use in the area.
Ms Reiter was circumspect when asked what the affect of Minister Guy’s ‘temporary’ changes meant for Buninyong residents, saying it applied only while the Minister considered the report from the Residential Zones Standing Advisory Committee.
Meanwhile Mr Taylor has said that, if elected, he will ‘work with the community and council to develop a Planning Scheme Amendment to address the community concerns.’ He accused Mr Howard of running a ‘tired and old scare campaign causing unnecessary stress and fear in Buninyong.’
Mr Howard told residents, ‘We will reverse the decision [by the Planning Minister] if that is what the community wants.’
Local resident Bryan Crebbin, who has lived in the town for 17 years, fears the implications of the zoning change. He said, ‘Buninyong is a village. This will change the nature of the place we love, traffic will increase, schools will be under pressure.’
Local real estate agent, Mr Phil Crosbie, told UniPollWatch that over the last five years the Ballarat council had ‘preferred’ lot sizes to remain over 800 square meters, but in the same period they had also approved sub-divisions smaller than this.
‘Some clarity on this would be fantastic because everyone is telling us different stories,’ Mr Crosbie said.
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Keryn Reynolds is a Master of Journalism student at the University of Melbourne