Green “lungs” at risk fears

Rosemary West standing where the Mordialloc bypass development is to be built . Photo Pieter Clarke.
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Development threatens protected environmental areas across Melbourne, says a longtime campaigner. Pieter Clarke reports.

An environmental campaigner and City of Kingston councillor fears areas set aside for decades in a Hamer government legacy to curtail urban sprawl are increasingly at risk to development.

“Melbourne’s green wedges are under threat,” says Rosemary West, one of the founders of a coalition which came together in 2002 and was pivotal in securing a promise from the State government to protect the areas she says are now threatened.

As a representative of the Melbourne’s Green wedges coaltion, she has fought against private interests, state governments and other bodies looking to develop the outer green areas sometimes called “Melbourne’s lungs” initially identified in 1968-71 planning as open space or parkland between Melbourne’s main transport corridors.

“These areas are vitally important for food growth and what we’ve been fighting is people putting down houses on our best agricultural land,” West says.

The group’s biggest accomplishment was the Bracks government’s creation of the urban growth boundary in 2002. This boundary provides environmental protections for land that has agricultural applications and holds back urban development pressures.

“When we got properly organised we managed to secure this protection pretty soon after and we thought it was just fantastic,” West says.

With the state government promise in her hands she thought that it would be easy from then on. But over the years she has had to fight tirelessly to keep these protections from being rolled back.

The group’s biggest setback was when then Planning Minister Justin Madden rezoned 43,600 hectares of land for urban development including the last western plains grassland within Melbourne’s borders in 2010.

Its most recent battle has been against the Mordialloc bypass development, a project that will cut into sections of the South Eastern Green wedge.

As part of the project the state government plans on having a pair of twin 500m long bridges spanning over Mordialloc creek and the associated wetlands, an area which the United Nations has deemed to be an environmentally significant site.

Concerns have been raised by local environmental advocacy groups about the effects of having 80,000 cars a day passing over these protected wetlands and what this could mean for the migratory birdlife that passes through here.

Environmental documents also warned of potential groundwater contamination from toxic chemicals in old landfills which may be disturbed by freeway construction work.

Unfortunately for the coalition this plan was granted approval despite Victorian planning minister Richard Wynne’s 2018 promise to protect Melbourne’s green wedges should he beat Matthew Guy in the following election.

“Only labor will stop Melbourne’s green wedges from inappropriate development and protect our prime agricultural land in the outer suburbs,” said Labor’s Richard Wynne MP before his 2018 win.

This is not the only recent development that has West concerned about the health of Melbourne’s green wedges, the shire of Nillumbik in Melbourne’s north east is also reviewing their green wedge management policy.

Nillumbik local greenery. Photo Pieter Clarke.

Following an extensive community consultation drive the Nillumbik council has produced a draft of its new green wedge management plan that has left some residents concerned about its implications for their local community.

While the existing management plan has a significant emphasis on preserving the Nillumbik green wedge as a strategic focus, the new draft fails to offer the same protections for preserving the existing environment.

“There’s a community uprising regarding this draft”, says Don Macrae.

Don Macrae is a Nillumbik community member who has lived in the area for 30 years and contributes to an environmentally focused community blog Wedge Tales.

For Nillumbik’s green wedge Macrae argues that the previous management plan that was meant to be held in place until 2025 was far better than the new one and the community agrees.

“The new plan is a low-quality document and it flags the sort of rezoning and subdivisions they want to bring in” Macrae says.

“Essentially everything the current council has done they have done in order to wind back environmental protections in favor of allowing property owners to do whatever they want with their land, which is of course a recipe for destroying the green wedge over time.”

The process of devising a new management plan was started with a series of community engagement workshops being held by the local council from April 2018 and the results of these workshops being released in August last year.

The results of these workshops overwhelmingly showed that the community’s favorite things about the green wedge was the “space, peace and healthy feel” along with the natural environment they were surrounded with.

The report also highlighted that the second highest concern the residents of this community had was over development, an issue that was just behind travel and transport.

With these opinions being popular within the community it would be understandable to think that the new green wedge management plan would adhere to this.

Macrae however is concerned that even after the community pushback against this draft a watered-down version will be implemented that won’t provide the protections desired.

“All that’s been submitted so far is the draft, there’s now been several submissions against it and now they will fiddle around with it and what they produce won’t be satisfactory but in the next month or two they’ll have a meeting and say here’s the new plan.”

These anxieties were also shared by former Nillumbik resident Akela Coutts who said, “I’m always concerned about our green wedge. There seems to be a lot of people there who want to develop it into something it’s not”.

For Rosemary West and the Green wedges coalition however, the issues keep piling up in areas outside both Kingston and Nillumbik.

Recently her group has also had to contend with new developments being looked at in areas such as the Yarra ranges Green Wedge. They currently have six planning applications for large scale developments along the Belgrave-Hallam road alone.

Despite all this West remains optimistic throughout, “You’ve got to be brave enough to see how bad things are, but you’ve got to keep brave and not let it get you down,” she says.