The Party in the Patch is a small annual music festival held in the leafy hills of Melbourne’s Yarra Ranges urban fringe. Like hundreds of other small festivals and events around the country, it began as a few mates holding a party, and grew into something bigger.
“Party in the Patch started as me and my mates having a party and over the last four years it just grew,” festival organiser Kye Garrett told Crikey over the phone last week. “Out here there’s nothing much for youth to do, the music culture has sort of gone out the window with the change of management at a few of the local venues, and it’s really hard for kids to get out of the house up here.
“When we realised we were going to have a few people up, we went to the council officers, and asked what do we have to comply with in the way of planning permits or zoning restrictions. I thought the only thing I can really do is walk into a council office and make some inquiries. After doing that, they told us there’d be no compliance issues whatsoever because it was a private party on private land.”
Held on a property owned by Garrett’s family, this year’s event was planned to feature nearly 50 acts and attendance was to be capped at 1000 patrons. Entry was via a small car-parking charge.
But that was until Yarra Ranges Council stepped in. The local shire had previously supported the event, but when it came to the attention of council officers this year, a very different approach was taken.
“After contacting councillor Samantha Dunn just over two weeks ago, she passed us on to Civic Compliance. They said that they were not quite sure why the information had only been passed on to them now, but they said that if this event goes ahead you’re looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and possible jail time,” Garrett said.
The show did not go on. The Party in the Patch was cancelled.
“We were aware that we needed permits and we needed compliance,” Garrett maintains. “I am an events manager, three of the other people on the board are events managers. I’m not Cory Worthington.”
The sticking point for Yarra Ranges Council appears to have been the event’s location in a Green Wedge Zone. In an email to Crikey, Andrew Paxton, Yarra Ranges Council’s director of planning, building and health, wrote that “pursuant to Clause 35.04 (Green Wedge Zone) of the Yarra Ranges Planning Scheme, the use of this land for ‘Place of Assembly’ is considered a prohibited use and is not open to interpretation”.
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Paxton also stated in an email that “permits regarding building matters, such as staging, marquees, etc, health matters such as serving of food, and local laws matters are required for festivals and events, but no applications had been received by council for these permits.”
Yarra Ranges councillor Samantha Dunn is sympathetic — to a point. “I’d love to be able to find somewhere to make this happen,” she told Crikey in a phone interview. “The Green Wedge Zone is really specific in what’s about and what it’s meant to do. We need to find another place to have it that doesn’t have those restrictions.”
According to Dunn, the fact the Party in the Patch was transitioning from a private party to a commercial event was “the key”.
“Where there’s commercial considerations,” she said “in this case there was an entry fee for car parking, and a charge for food and also market stalls, so that’s what really made it a commercial venture — even though it was not-for-profit — it’s that commercial element which means that its not what could be considered a private party.”
But planning experts that Crikey spoke to disputed this interpretation of the planning scheme.
Professor Michael Buxton, an expert in peri-urban planning at RMIT, told Crikey council planners have wide powers of intepretation when it comes to the planning schedules in terms of what activities are prohibited and what are permit required. And Dr Kate Shaw, an ARC research fellow in building, planning and architecture at the University of Melbourne, said: “The most interesting thing that the council is saying is this distinction between community and commercial. The fact that there is no distinction in the planning scheme means that there is discretion. [Councillor Dunn] is obviously saying there is discretion.”
Council planners have told Garrett that his event was prohibited as a “place of assembly”. But the Yarra Ranges planning schedule makes clear that a restricted place of assembly — which “must not be used for more than 30 days in a calendar year” — is allowable with a relevant permit. The Party in the Patch, a one-day event that occurs annually, would obviously meet this definition. The schedule also lists other types of events, such as carnivals, that do not require a permit at all.
Shaw argues that decision of this nature are really driven by a “culture of intense fear of litigation”. She asks: “Is it the kind of activity that the council would otherwise support?”
For Garrett, the entire encounter has been frustrating: “If somebody told you right now that your house was on a Green Wedge Zone, and you made an attempt to find out what that meant on your own, you’d never be able to find out that information. I’ve been contacted by other members of the council cabinet that have told me that the information on Green Wedge Zones is so ambiguous that it would be impossible to hit us with any charges on that anyway.”
For her part, councillor Dunn argues that “I also support youth festivals, we’ve just got to find the right place for it”.