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Ambitious plans to convert farmland just beyond Melbourne’s northern fringe into a carbon-neutral, water-wise suburb have stalled while the state government weighs up a competing proposal to open a basalt quarry on the same site.
The planning stalemate points to a growing problem that threatens to push up development costs and add to wear and tear on the state’s roads: Victoria’s hunger for raw materials for construction is rising, but new housing estates are butting up against earmarked quarry sites as Melbourne sprawls ever outwards.
Mitchell Shire councillor Rob Eldridge (third left) with locals (from left) James Cisco, Skye Forster, Mike Phillips, Gazza Sturdy and Gayle Phillips on Green Hill in Wallan. Spring Hill and the proposed quarry site is in the background.Credit: Justin McManus
Between Wallan and Beveridge, about 45 kilometres north of Melbourne, a 1275-hectare patchwork of cattle and canola paddocks is full of competing visions.
The area was absorbed into Melbourne’s urban growth boundary just over 10 years ago and will be developed in the next 20 to 30 years into a suburb of about 15,000 homes.
Yarra Valley Water, a government-owned corporation, owns 60 per cent of the land and wants to work with developers to build an environmentally sustainable suburb that produces more water than it uses.
The development has been dubbed Hazelwynde and it would be part of the future Beveridge North-West precinct, which will be home to some 50,000 people. Yarra Valley Water was primed to relinquish the land for irrigation purposes this year, but it has put its housing plans on hold until 2025 due to delays in ruling on the quarry.
The proposed quarry, on privately owned land, is also being assessed by the state government.
If approved, a 20-year supply of basalt will be dug out of Spring Hill, a small volcanic double cone two kilometres south of Wallan, providing raw materials for a range of major projects.
The Mitchell Shire Council has already rejected the quarry proposal and is still fighting fiercely against it, spending more than $1 million on legal and campaigning fees. Large NO QUARRY signs have been placed on busy roadsides around the towns of Wallan and Beveridge, and even on the gates of childcare centres. Locals have taken up the cause too.
But the decision has been taken out of the community’s hands.
Victoria’s Planning Minister, Sonya Kilkenny, will rule on whether the quarry is approved at an unknown future date. An earlier decision date of October 2022 was extended indefinitely while the Department of Transport and Planning assesses the planning panel’s recommendation to approve the quarry.
There have been two planning panel hearings about Beveridge North-West. In the first, the Victorian Planning Authority advised against approving the quarry, finding it would have negative impacts on the supply of housing, on local traffic and on a proposed school and town centre.
The quarry, which would yield 700,000 tonnes of stone a year, is the most contentious element of the plan for Beveridge North-West.
Rob Eldridge, a Mitchell Shire councillor, argues the quarry – with its noise, dust and industrial activity – will sabotage all other plans to develop Beveridge North-West into a community people want to live in.
“My concern is that it’ll be a place where people go as a last resort, not where they go because it’s a great environment,” he said. “We want it to be a destination, not a desperation.”
Wallan residents Skye Forster and James Cisco agree. The couple moved from Reservoir in Melbourne’s northern suburbs to Wallan in 2018, seeking a quieter life.
Forster, who works in the community sector, argues it defies logic to build a quarry in an area earmarked for housing during a housing crisis.
“This would displace 2500 homes within the quarry buffer zone at a time when there is such demand, such need,” Forster said.
Between a rock and a hard place
Melbourne also needs more quarries. As the city grows, extracting enough raw material from the earth to build all the new roads, rail lines and buildings in the pipeline will become increasingly challenging.
The state will need the equivalent of 32 additional quarries by decade’s end, each producing an average of 500,000 tonnes of material a year, a government study forecasts.
Demand is “being driven to unprecedented levels”, and is most intense in Melbourne’s outer suburbs, where population growth is happening fastest, the Extractive Resources Supply and Demand Study 2022-30 said.
Traditionally, quarries have been dug on Melbourne’s urban fringes, to reduce costs, travel time and wear and tear on roads. But quarry operators’ social licence to operate there is fraying as community members become less tolerant of living near them.
“Competing land uses and changing community attitudes are leading to regulatory uncertainty and longer time frames for new quarry and quarry variation approvals,” the study found.
The planning panel for Beveridge North-West heard evidence that quarry proposals that once took months to be ticked off are taking several years to clear regulatory hurdles, and that some quarry operators have given up working in peri-urban areas.
It is likely new quarries will need to be developed much further away from Melbourne, the report warned.
The quarry’s proponent, Conundrum Holdings, started its investigation of Spring Hill as a possible site in 2004, several years before the area was considered for housing.
“The site has always been recognised as paddocks, capable of primary industry activities inclusive of waste water irrigation and quarrying,” Conundrum director Ron Kerr said.
The “short-term” quarry – 20 years of extraction, then 10 years of rehabilitation – “will most benefit the community by extracting the resources as close as possible to the market in a short-term quarry, and then seamlessly develop housing or other public infrastructure”, he said.
Kerr said he hoped the quarry would be approved soon, and play a role in developing Melbourne’s northern corridor. He rejected council arguments that the location is inappropriate.
“The rock is where the rock is, the market is where the market is, and the road network is where the network is,” he said.
Andrew Butt is a professor of urban planning at RMIT University. He is also involved in developing a “resilience plan” for Beveridge North-West that would cushion the future community from climate shocks such as extreme heat and drought.
Butt says the stand-off over the quarry was predestined more than 10 years ago when Melbourne’s urban boundary was extended to include the green belts between satellite towns such as Wallan, Cranbourne and Melton.
“The logic of having satellite towns and green wedges is well established in planning strategies that go back to the 1960s. Then to go against that, as happened a decade ago, was one step I’d argue didn’t make sense,” he said.
He dismissed Conundrum Holdings’ argument that the site should be as close as possible to where the basalt will be used. “We build skyscrapers in Melbourne – it doesn’t mean we are going to put a quarry in Carlton Gardens.”
Meanwhile, Eldrige, the local councillor, wants part of this expansive rural site to be regenerated into the Wallan Wallan Wetlands, a proposed nature refuge and large public park for the city’s booming outer north.
He has a special place he takes people to present his vision for the wetlands. On the southern edge of Wallan, a four-wheel-drive track runs steeply through waist-high grass to the top of Green Hill.
At the summit, looking southward, is his big reveal: a chain of remnant volcanoes rolling across a bucolic landscape, with two seasonal swamps at their feet.
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