Crunch time for lot sizes

The proposed changes to the average minimum lot size would allow farmers more flexibility to manage their asset.
The proposed changes to the average minimum lot size would allow farmers more flexibility to manage their asset.

A planning proposal that would see the value of rural land increase in the Yass Valley is "100 per cent positive", according to former mayor Nic Carmody.

Under the proposed changes, now on exhibition at Yass Valley Council, the average minimum lot size permitted in a rural subdivision would be halved, from 80 to 40 hectares. No new lots less than 20ha or greater than 173ha would be permitted.

Average is a key word here. For example, instead of dividing a farm in half, farmers would have the option of creating a smaller life-style block and a larger, more viable farming block. The smaller block would have a greater value in terms of dollars per ha.

The proposals aim to encourage the diversification of agricultural activity and sustainable growth in the sector. They would allow farmers greater flexibility when planning for intergenerational change or retirement and when coping with adverse circumstances such as drought.

Yass farmer Peter Walker has lobbied for years for the changes. "These changes would give farmers greater flexibility when managing their asset," he said.

The issue of minimum lot sizes has been a vexed one for decades, Mr Walker explained. The proposed changes would partly restore the flexibility lost by farmers in our area in the 1970s when the Federal Government considered expanding the ACT border towards Yass and the minimum lot size was raised. In recent years the averaging provision was restored; these proposals would increase the flexibility of those provisions.

Barry Walker, "Legerton", believes the changes will "allow as many farms as possible to remain in productive capacity as long as possible".  For instance, they would "allow for more equitable intergenerational farm transfers while reducing the disruption to the main farming base, thus helping to keep farming families on the land".

The changes represent a "good balance", said Yass Valley Council's Director of Planning Chris Berry. He believes the changes would not lead to a flood of inappropriate developments.

"These are good planning tools in terms of preserving larger allotments and continuing agriculture.

"Planning is about people. If there is a strong community view, we should be working with the community to achieve that goal."

That strong community view was demonstrated by a packed public meeting in Memorial Hall in 2009 which emphatically rejected a study that proposed to increase the minimum lot sizes. Since then the Yass Rural Lands Planning Committee, formed under section 355 of the Local Government Act 2003 and chaired by Nic Carmody, has prepared the current proposal.

The Rural Lands Planning Proposal has also been Peer Reviewed by an Independent Review Panel which was strongly in favour of the proposed changes. In an extraordinary move, the Minister for Planning has delegated the authority to make the decision to the Yass Valley Council.

Six councillors will decide the issue. For the sake of transparency the three councillors who own rural land (mayor Abbey and Crs Burgess and Daniel) have declared an interest and will not take part in the voting process. Also in the interests of good governance, mayor Abbey declined to comment for this article.

The Rural Lands Planning Proposal is on exhibition until Friday, August 22, 2014 at Yass Valley Council offices or online at www.yassvally.nsw.gov.au (under 'On Exhibition').

Submissions close at 5pm Friday August 22, 2014 and can be sent to The General Manager, Yass Valley Council, PO Box 6, Yass NSW 2582 or emailed to council@yass.nsw.gov.au.

How the changes could work

1. Intergenerational transfers

It is no secret that intergenerational transfer of land is a major cause of friction and division in many farming families across our area. A lack of sub-division flexibility can lead to a major loss of production and reduced borrowing capacity, which puts the viability of the whole enterprise in jeopardy and increases the chance of families selling up and leaving the area.

Under these proposals, off-farm children could receive a small value-enhanced block while still leaving a viable farming area for those continuing in the business.

2. Retirement

Selling off a small block could provide enough money for the older generation to move to town, without having a major impact on the remaining business.

3. Drought

Over the past decade a number of local properties have been sold because of the financial impact of the drought. If the option of a selling a small block becomes available, farming families who find themselves in a similar situation in the future may be able to stay on their land.

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