13 September, 2023
Legal action looms over tourist farm expansion
A LEGAL stoush is looming for Tablelands Regional Council after a decision that allows Old Mates Farm to expand its area of operations and build more facilities but not have any extra overnight guests and no day visitation.
Council handed down its long-awaited decision last week on the controversial development that has had its Hemmings Lane neighbours up in arms at the prospect of the tourism operation getting bigger, based mainly around the increase in traffic along the narrow dirt road and its intersection with the Kennedy Highway.
That issue proved to be the critical factor in four of the councillors voting down the application that would have increased the current 12 overnight guests allowed on the farm to 74, and also 30 day visitors for the first time.
But instead of refusing the application outright, Cr Peter Hodge moved the council approve the application for Old Mates Farm to become a "tourist park", including new buildings and facilities and an extended area of operations, but with a host of stringent conditions.
The conditions placed on the approval mean the farm can still only have 12 overnight visitors, no day visitors, will have to cease operations during the wet season and undertake major improvements to Hemmings Lane including sealing 120m of the road, installing mirrors to improve sight lines, installing signage to instruct vehicles to give way at the bridge and vegetation slashing.
Farm owners Louise Livingstone and Tony Freeman were dumbfounded at the decision and described the outcome as “bizarre”.
Mr Freeman said months of hard work with planning officers to get the development to an acceptable level that would provide a sustainable business model whilst addressing the concerns of neighbours was rejected by the councillors.
“We now have a very bizarre situation now where we have an approval for a Tourist Park and Nature Based Tourism, 22 campsites, three huts, a manager’s residence, a staff residence, a kiosk, and amenities,” he said.
“However, we do not have any increase in the number of people from the 12 (average) that we already have.
“So, we effectively have an approval as per all the documentation in the report (maps/plans/description), but with zero people. Like the pub with no beer, we are a tourist park with no tourists.”
Mayor Rod Marti and Cr Annette Haydon spoke passionately in favour of approving the development as per the original officers recommendation, with the Mayor making it clear he was upset after the amended approval was passed 4-2.
"Well councillors, we have truly crossed the line here – it makes no sense what we’ve done,” he said.
After the meeting he told The Express: “We have been very fortunate to have a leading-edge business in the farm/nature stay space that’s now hit a brick wall at council.”
He had earlier tried to convince councillors to back the expansion of the popular camping tourist spot, saying the unique experience that was offered by Old Mates Farm was a drawcard for locals and visitors and was a huge asset for the Tablelands region.
But Deputy Mayor Kevin Cardew was strong in his argument that the capacity of Hemmings Lane and its intersection with the Kennedy Highway was of sufficient concern to reject allowing more people to visit the farm.
He said projected traffic movements outlined in the report did not take into account other necessary movements such as service vehicles, and noted that the 74 overnight visitors was just below the trigger point of 75 which would have required the involvement of the Department of Transport and Main Roads to consider whether the intersection with the Kennedy Highway would need to be upgraded.
The application had attracted 14 “properly made” submissions, all of which objected to the expansion of the farm, with 62 not properly made submissions received after the closing date, 58 of which supported the proposal.
The final decision has shocked Mr Freeman and Ms Livingstone who now face having to take legal action if they fail in their attempt to get the council to reconsider the visitation cap.
“The overarching reason for the development application was to increase revenue by increasing visitation to create a viable business model,” Ms Livingstone said.
“The approval provided yesterday did not meet that requirement and does not meet previous advice provided by TRC that we could increase our number of people.
“Obviously, the costs associated for external (roads) and internal infrastructure would not be recoverable in any business model. Put simply, the decisions made yesterday are not ‘fair and reasonable’ and therefore we will contest yesterday’s result.
“So, now TRC has orced us into a position where we will need to take legal action to obtain a fair and reasonable result, unless we can reach an agreement beforehand.
“That will result in substantial costs for us, and we will be seeking to have those costs reimbursed to us from TRC.
“Unfortunately, the ratepayers will likely find themselves paying for TRC legal costs and ours, which is something we don’t feel good about.
“There are better priorities for ratepayers’ money,” she added.
In contrast, neighbour Russell Lynch, on behalf of all those who objected to the farm’s expansion, applauded the stance by Crs Kevin Cardew, Bernie Wilce, Peter Hodge and David Clifton to vote “no” to more overnight guests and day trippers.
“Gentlemen, it was a humbling experience to hear statements put forward by four competent individuals which echoed the concerns of the residents and the rural sector as part of your statements of decline,” Mr Lynch said.
“We are in no doubt that you four councillors chose the hard road upon which to take your stance.”