Site of proposed McDonalds restaurant in Tecoma, Dandenong Ranges (click to look around in Google Streetview)

The township of Tecoma on the outskirts of Melbourne has been battling against the prospect of a new 24 hour McDonalds franchise in their village since 2011. Yarra Ranges Shire Council received over 1,300 objections to the proposed restaurant. A record 650 residents attended the Council meeting to consider the company’s application.

According to community group, the objections raised concerns relating to:

traffic, litter, noise, crime, impact on existing local businesses, locality opposite a Primary and Pre School, proximity within 1 kilometre of a National Park, the development not befitting the character of the Hills, the demolition of the historic Hazel Vale Dairy building which currently resides at the proposed site, local amenity issues and the fact that there are no 24 hour fast food outlets with drive-thrus in the entire Dandenong Ranges.

Council did what local government often does with hot issues like this and refused the application notwithstanding that a convenience restaurant is a permissible use of the land under the Planning Scheme without a permit (a permit is required to develop the land, though).

McDonalds appealed to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) which found the proposal conformed to the Planning Scheme and set aside Council’s decision. VCAT found (McDonalds P/L vs Yarra Ranges SC) that many of the potential adverse outcomes identified by community members weren’t relevant planning considerations. It concluded that:

The matters that are before us include activation of the Tecoma activity centre as encouraged by policy, integration with the streetscape, building design, landscaping and traffic and parking. We are satisfied that this proposal complies with the Scheme. It would be a contemporary and well designed building that would fit well into the streetscape. It would provide additional landscaping consistent with the vegetation in the locality. We find that the location and operation of its access, loading bay and car parking areas would be satisfactory. Its signage and illumination can be designed to reflect the Tecoma streetscape and night time character. In general, it provides local employment opportunities, supports tourism and broadens the business mix in the centre, as encouraged by policy.

Council decided it wouldn’t take the matter any further. However residents still feel very strongly about the prospect of a McDonalds in their neighbourhood and have occupied the site to prevent construction starting. They’ve reportedly enlisted the support of unions.

Here’s a remarkably passionate and committed letter from Tecoma resident Karl Williams published in The Age earlier this month:

I have just spent two days and nights atop the Tecoma buildings earmarked for demolition by McDonald’s, defying police orders to come down. In my 57 years, I’ve never dreamt of breaking the law and nor has my wife, who accompanied me.

Outrage can be a wonderfully motivating urge to action. About 92 per cent of locals are opposed to the outlet, mainly because of the effect it will have on the leafy, sleepy, hills town character that attracted us to move here. Our anger results from the failure of our democratic system of government to allow citizens to engage in a just legal contest against wealthy corporate interests.

McDonald’s has treated council’s unanimous rejection of its plan as a minor nuisance, knowing that its legal battalion and expert witnesses can overwhelm any opposition at VCAT. We had to come down for pressing family reasons, but are definitely returning. Sometimes you have to break the law to change the law.

That the prospect of a fast food restaurant could provoke a resident to consider “breaking the law to change the law” suggests this isn’t just about, or even primarily about, traditional planning considerations. It’s the sort of sentiment usually associated with matters of high principle.

Notwithstanding the various instrumental objections raised by residents (and rejected by VCAT), I think this is mostly about the idea of a chain fast food restaurant in a “leafy, sleepy” place like Tecoma. Residents didn’t think they were signing up to the corporate and consumerist values associated with McDonalds when they chose to settle in this bucolic ex-urb in the charming Dandenong Ranges.

The media has elected to focus on the protest dimension, but there are other matters relevant to this debate. For example, what about the employment, tourism and activity centre activation benefits cited by VCAT? Would a sympathetically designed McDonalds in the main street really put the character of Tecoma at risk? Did the large BP servo across the road from the proposed site generate the same level of opposition? How do residents feel about Tecoma Fish and Chips?

It’s also likely there’re people in the region who don’t have the same visceral negative reaction to the idea of a McDonalds. They might feel they’d benefit from a more accessible  outlet.

The company has presumably done the research to establish there’s sufficient demand for its products to support a 24 hour operation. The nearest existing McDonalds is a considerable distance away at Ferntree Gully, about 6 km closer to the city along the Burwood Hwy.

McDonalds is unappealing to some people but for others it offers a very attractive package in terms of service, convenience and value for money.

The latter group might be less sophisticated on average than those opposing the proposal and they might be less able to afford alternatives, but I can’t see any reason why their interests shouldn’t be given the same regard.

Regular consumption of fast food is unhealthy and some reckon that’s sufficient grounds to oppose opening further fast food outlets. Obesity and diabetes are major national health issues, however they should be tackled in ways that directly address all unhealthy foods, not just that offered by some businesses in some locations.

There are already many McDonalds franchises in metropolitan Melbourne (see map) not to mention myriad other fast food outlets (even food carts!). Preventing further ones opening on health policy grounds risks charges of discrimination, ignoring consumer choice, effectively subsidising existing food and snack businesses, and possibly promoting car travel. If done in isolation it would almost certainly be ineffective.

There’s more than one way of looking at issues like this and they all need to be considered.