PLANS to build a footpath that have divided the peaceful village of Somers are becoming increasingly hostile, with opponents launching their own legal challenge and accusing the council of taking sides.
The long-running dispute has also put the Mornington Peninsula Shire’s special charge schemes under the spotlight, prompting an investigation that recommended abandoning one scheme, reviewing others and deferring nine.
Shire CEO Carl Cowie last week described the issue as “vexed” and said dividing townships was not the intent of the scheme.
As previously reported in The News, the Somers footpath scheme signalled the shire’s intention to change the way costs are spread for all future special charge schemes. The cost of the proposed 5.2 km coastal footpath will be spread across 1245 Somers properties the council deems to receive a “special benefit” from the path, and not just the abutting properties.
Angered by the move, the Somers Village Community Association (SVCA) is funding its own legal challenge at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) over the shire’s plans to build the footpath and invoice almost the entire township.
The association is also at loggerheads with another residents’ group in the town – Somers Residents’ Association – that supports the proposal.
Outside the council meeting last Monday week, about 20 people gathered around No to Concrete signs and vowed to force the council to answer questions about the cost and promotion of the scheme. However, their question time was cut short when Mr Cowie refused to read out all of them because they were lengthy and “repetitive”.
He agreed to respond to all the concerns raised in writing, but rejected claims that “one side of the community was assisted and one side wasn’t”.
Mr Cowie offered to be “front and centre” of a conciliation meeting between the two ratepayer groups.
Before the meeting, SVCA member Michelle Gregory said the council had not surveyed residents properly and that “about 600” residents were opposed to the concrete footpath that was “not in keeping with the character” of the coastal town, and were still unhappy with a council compromise to provide a mix of exposed aggregate and concrete.
The shire has given the Somers pathway project high priority and proposes an exposed aggregate shared pathway along Camp Hill Rd and the northern end of South Beach Rd with an exposed aggregate narrower meandering footpath along Parklands Av, Tasman Rd and the south end of South Beach Rd.
According to council reports, more than 60 per cent of residents surveyed preferred an exposed aggregate surface – a less formal surface than concrete that is pram and wheelchair friendly – over the alternative granitic sand surface.
“They (the council) won’t use any information that doesn’t support their case,” Ms Gregory said.
When contacted by The News, president of the Somers Residents’ Association, Dennis Aylward, said two surveys had shown wide support for the footpath, and that “a lot of false information” was being spread.
“I feel the council has been very fair; the council has put a proposal and they’re [the SVCA] is not happy with that,” he said.
David Gill, a former Mornington shire president, has accused the council of being misleading over a statement by its chief operating officer Alison Lieghton that help provided to the survey conducted by Somers Residents’ Association did not include paying for postage. A letter to the SCVA member Dr Chris Atmore by infrastructure strategy project manager Jeremy Grieve states: “Council provided the SRA with printed address labels … and council also paid for the cost of the postage”.
In a separate item after the questions from the public, council accepted a report on the progress of the special charge scheme that recommended revising the scheme to ensure the shire’s “commitment to footpath implementation” is maintained.
Councillors moved to adopt the report’s recommendation to defer nine proposals in the “instigation” phase due to significant opposition revealed in a survey.
Councillors also moved to accept the recommendation to abandon one scheme in McDowell St, Rosebud, and review four others.
A budget surplus of $404,000 will be redirected towards footpath renewal projects in Babington Park, Hastings, Stony Point Rd, Bittern and Frankston-Flinders Rd, Somerville.