LAND OF HOPE AND STORY: Irymple’s Vince Caristo and his wife, Taneh, with the Member for Mildura, Ali Cupper, on the couple’s dream home site. Photo: PAUL MENSCH

By JOHN DOOLEY

A DECISION to relax the rules allowing landholders to develop small blocks in the Mildura Older Irrigated Area (MOIA) is expected to be made by the end of the month.

Member for Mildura Ali Cupper said Planning Minister Richard Wynne’s office informed her last week that his decision was imminent.

Irymple residents Vince Caristo and his wife, Taneh, are holding out hope that the Minister’s decision will be a favourable one, so that they can build their dream home and get on with their lives.

The Caristo’s purchased their Fifteenth Street property in 2014, and were subsequently unaware of an amendment which restricted developing MOIA lots between 0.2 and two hectares, being passed by the State Government in 2016, which effectively prevented any residential development on their block.

“We purchased it with a building permit, we had our plans and had signed up with a builder and we presented that to Council, only to be told that we weren’t allowed to build on this block of land,” Mrs Caristo said. “It came as a real shock. Really disappointing and disheartening.”

“We had purchased the land for $126,000 and we were paying rates on that value and then it was revalued to $8000, because it couldn’t be built on.

“We’re still paying a loan on that original value, which makes it even worse.”

Mr Caristo said that Council eventually reimbursed them for the rates over-payment.

“Council refunded a year and half worth of rates after we queried what we were paying,” he said.

The Victorian Government stopped all housing development in the MOIA in 2009 in order to protect horticultural land being lost to residential expansion.

Minister Wynne then signed-off on ‘Amendment C89’ in 2016, which restricted developing MOIA lots between 0.2 and 2ha – the rule change that the Caristo’s found themselves a victim of.

A passionate campaigner on this issue, Ms Cupper said that the original intent to protect horticultural land in the Mildura district had merit, and in relation to bigger blocks, it still does.

“However, the restrictions on smaller blocks has resulted in too many blocks sitting idle,” she said.

Ms Cupper has been a lead advocate for affected landholders and lobbied the Victorian Government to allow development of blocks between 0.2ha and 1.2ha, land she argues is not viable horticulture land.

“We have a situation where landholders have blocks that are just too small to use for anything other than houses and they are just sitting there not being used,” she said.

“This highlights one of the anomalies with this regulation and particularly for people with blocks 0.2ha to 1.2ha.”

Referencing the example of the Caristo’s land, Ms Cupper said that these are blocks that were sold and purchased with the view to being housing blocks and had to have their irrigation infrastructure removed.

“Therefore it makes the rules for blocks of this size particularly farcical,” she said.

“The idea was that we have to stop housing development on those blocks because they are going to be brought back into production. Well we have had quite some time to test that theory and we have found that blocks bigger than 1.2ha that still have their irrigation infrastructure in tact are more likely to be brought back into production.

“But for those less than 1.2ha it’s just not happening – so the evidence is obvious, there is no justification to continue to keep these families suffering the economic hardship that they’re having to endure – it’s time to change the rules.

Ms Cupper is optimistic that the Minister’s decision will be favourable, but she has to await the outcome.

“I hope that justice prevails. I am the eternal optimist, but I am also aware of how tough this challenge has been,” she said.

“There have been successive previous Local Members, Councillors and bureaucrats who have pushed to try and have these rules changed, but it has proven to be extremely difficult to budge the rules of the MOIA. While I have faith that justice can prevail here, I’m also very aware of the scale of the challenge, but we have made a strong case.”

Ms Cupper invited the Minister to come to Mildura to hear her case and in doing so she said she was very deliberate in her strategy on the day he visited.

“I didn’t want him attending a ‘town hall-style’ meeting, where everyone had their say, and I didn’t want to take him to see 20 different properties. That can become too much and be like white noise,” she said.

“We met with one local expert, Jim Belbin, and he explained the situation to Richard clearly and concisely. Jim knows the MOIA rules and their application inside out, and there wasn’t a single question that the Minister raised, that Jim couldn’t answer precisely.

Following that, we showed him one property and it was this property where we are today – the Caristos.”

Ms Cupper said that she felt Mr Wynne was quite struck by the example.

“It showed the farcical nature of the rules as they apply to those smaller lots,” she said. “We have a school just up the road, we are surrounded by houses – it barely touches an adjoining horticultural property. We made a good case and we’ve kept up the pressure on the Minister since his visit, asking him for a decision. We expect to have that decision by the end of the month, and we hope it’s a favourable one.”

As well as allowing landholders to develop small blocks and, in some cases, build their ‘dream homes’, Ms Cupper said a change to the rules would help kickstart the Mildura economy in its post-COVID-19 revival.

“Anything we can do to encourage and allow development is going to be crucial to our COVID-19 recovery,” she said.

“Allowing the affected landholders to build houses on these small blocks will potentially be a huge boost to the construction industry in the short to medium term, boost jobs and help drive our economy.”