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Sleepy town awake!

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  • Sleepy town awake!

    Sleepy town awake!

    Author: Clay Lucas
    Date: December 12, 2007
    Publication: The Age (subscribe)

    Promises of freebies are not enough to sway them in their struggle against development, writes Clay Lucas.

    A well-organised campaign by locals in Victoria's sleepy Barwon Heads is set to defeat one man's plan to turn farmland on the town's edge, bought cheaply a decade ago, into residential land worth $60 million.

    Geelong Council was set to vote on Tuesday whether to let developer Bob Macafee rezone his 51 hectares to allow for a large-scale residential development.

    More than 700 of Barwon Heads' 3000 residents have written to the council opposing the rezoning.

    The dispute is a case of life imitating art in Barwon Heads, where much of the ABC's drama SeaChange was shot. In an early episode, real estate mogul Bob Jelly found himself up to his neck in a property deal that outraged the fictitious town of Pearl Bay.

    Mr Macafee bought the farmland in 1996 for what he said this year was "around $900,000".

    If rezoned to residential, it would be divided into 250 blocks. The smallest block in Barwon Heads sells for at least $250,000.

    That means Mr Macafee could reap $60 million or more.

    The battle for Barwon Heads is typical of struggles going on in many coastal towns within 90 minutes of Melbourne. According to the Victorian Coastal Strategy, towns within easy reach of the CBD are in danger of being loved to death by people contemplating a sea change.

    The Macafee family say they want to rezone the land so the town does not run out of land for its growing population.

    In 1981, Barwon Heads had 1245 residents. Last year's census showed its population had grown to 2997.

    The Macafees' opponents say the town has enough vacant land to deal with growth, and that the rezoning - which would result in the town boundary being extended - has nothing to do with land supply and everything to do with money.

    Mr Macafee, who did not return calls from The Age this week, has promised to spend more than $3 million on local facilities, including the Barwon Heads football club and the local preschool.

    But both organisations, among others that Mr Macafee has claimed will be beneficiaries, have told Geelong Council they do not want the project to go ahead. In a letter to the council, Barwon Heads Preschool president Shane Brasier said he had read with "revulsion" pledges by Mr Macafee to "bribe" the council with promises of funds and community infrastructure. "The perceived endorsement of the project by the kinder is complete fabrication," he wrote.

    Steve Wickham, from the Save Barwon Heads Alliance, said 763 submissions rejecting the rezoning was "an unambiguous statement" by the community.

    The group has held three meetings, each attended by more than 300 people. Anger at the rezoning had grown, Mr Wickham said.

    "At each town meeting, when a vote was taken, there was only one lonely hand supporting the development."

    The Macafee land abuts the Barwon Heads Golf Club.

    In 2004, Mr Macafee, who is a member of the club, had a deal with the club to use some of his land for a nine-hole extension. That agreement is no longer current.

    Mayor Bruce Harwood, also a member of the golf club, refused to comment on the project before Tuesday's meeting.

    But Cr Jan Farrell said the community had spoken "loud and clear". "They don't want it," she said. "They want to protect the village atmosphere of Barwon Heads."

    Mr Macafee has promised to give 27 hectares of the 51-hectare parcel of land to the community.

    Cr Farrell said that while Mr Macafee's proposal was excellent because he had offered to donate so much open space from his land, the community had a right to be heard, and the number of submissions lodged was "a significant response".

    Cr Rod Macdonald, who has the council's planning portfolio, said there was a lot to consider in the plan, especially as Mr Macafee had offered to give so much open space.

    "It's 10 times the amount of open space we usually ask for," he said, but he conceded there was strong local opposition.

    "There's one way to find out if a man is honest-ask him. If he says 'yes,' you know he is a crook." Groucho Marx