Greg Sheridan’s piece in the most recent Weekend AustralianA load of old crystal balls” exemplifies how problematic the unquestioning rehashing of items in the news cycle can be.

Sheridan’s diatribe on the absurdity of futurology and the evils of environmentalism includes a passing reference to a particular Victorian bushfire survival story:

“The ABC, in a moment of rare heterodoxy, told the story of a man fined $50,000 by his local council for clearing the trees around his house. The fine was worth it, for his was the only house in the area that survived.”

In the wake of the Victorian bushfires, environmentalists and local councils were strung up by the media as scapegoats for their perceived overprotection of vegetation at the expense of homes and property. Sheridan in the same article wrote: “Local councils are the Taliban of green conventional wisdom.”

Sheridan’s bushfire story was about the Sheahan family from Reedy Creek. Fairfax published a version of the story on 12 February. The Sheahans told Fairfax their home had survived the Black Saturday blaze because, in 2002, they defied regulation on clearing and illegally logged a section of their property to create a firebreak.

The family had engaged in a lengthy legal dispute with the Mitchell Shire Council as a result of clearing the land and, both Sheridan and Fairfax attest, were fined $50, 000.

Umbrella grassroots environmental group the Upper Yarra and Dandenongs Environment Council say the Fairfax article misrepresents both the legal processes for clearing and the specific events surrounding the case of the Sheahan family.

The key issues outlined by the Upper Yarra and Dandenongs Environment Council and reiterated at environment group blog (We) can do better are:

  • The Sheahans did not just log any trees; they logged 259 old growth eucalyptus trees over four acres that was part of an environmental overlay on their property.
  • There is no evidence that the Sheahans cleared the land with the intention of creating a firebreak. The Sheahans left most of the felled trees piled up on their property and, as the magistrate noted, did not apply for exemptions under the Mitchell planning scheme until after they had cleared the land.
  • Clearing the land did not immediately result in the Sheahans being “dragged before a magistrates court”. Legal action was only taken by the Council when the Sheahan family failed to honour a council order to pay $2500 in council costs and replant vegetation on their property in 2003.
  • The Sheahans were fined $30,000 all up and ordered to pay legal costs to the Shire Council of $20,000. The Mitchell Shire Council has not pursued recovery of the $20,000 costs awarded to them from the Sheahan family.
  • The Fairfax article stated that planning laws only allow trees to be cleared if they are within six metres of a house, but this is only applicable for clearing without a permit. Permits to clear other areas can be granted through a regulation permit process.
  • Fairfax did not contact the Mitchell Shire Council for comment.

When Crikey contacted the Mitchell Shire Council, we were told that as a matter of course, the Council did not comment on the case of the Sheahan family. This stance is interesting given the implications of the story and the seriousness of the issue surrounding fire breaks in Victoria since February. The Mitchell Shire Council instead directed Crikey to the council minutes:

In this instance on a number of occasions the defendants were given the opportunity to settle prior to and during a costly court case. The original settlement requested by Council was for $2500 plus revegetation work. The final decision handed down by the court was $50,000 (fine and costs) plus the revegetation works. The Enforcement and Compliance Unit generally looks at ways of working with our residents to achieve compliance with local or State legislation. Unfortunately this is not possible in all circumstances and Council must have the ability to prosecute matters. There are no winners in a matter such as this. The destruction of the trees occurred in August 2002 and the Court proceedings were completed in April 2005. The Council has spent a considerable amount of money prosecuting this matter and the property owner has been fined a significant amount.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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