Saturday, October 29, 2016

VIC – Come down on rogue developers like a ton of bricks

The Age Editorial 28 October 2016

"Wanton Destruction of a Heritage Site"
It took just a weekend for property developers to bulldoze the Corkman Irish Pub and erase 159 years of urban history from the streets of Carlton. It will rank as one of the most egregious acts of wanton destruction of a heritage site Melbourne has seen.

The pub's owners, Stefce Kutlesovski and Raman Shaqiri, had no building or planning permit to undertake the demolition work, while a City of Melbourne heritage overlay protected the site.  Even after the illegal demolition was undertaken, using a demolition company half owned by Mr Shaqiri, the developers then chose to dump toxic building waste and rubble – including uncovered asbestos – from the historic pub at a building site they owned in Cairnlea, close to the homes of neighbouring families.

The 159-year-old Carlton pub will have to be rebuilt, says Planning Minister Richard Wynne.
Our politicians have been bellicose in their condemnation, variously calling Mr Shaqiri and Mr Kutlesovski "rogues" and "cowboys" for their act of vandalism.

In the wake of threats from the state government and City of Melbourne to force them to rebuild the pub brick by brick, the men have now apologised and offered to put back what they demolished. It's a bizarre outcome, and it has to be asked whether or not another Irish theme pub is the best long-term use for the site.

A letter crafted by hired spin doctors and an offer to rebuild the pub doesn't absolve Mr Kutlesovski and Mr Shaqiri of their actions.

There is no question that the developers need to be brought to account and face the full legal consequences for their premeditated actions and defiance of the law. Unfortunately, as it stands, those punishments will be relatively insignificant.

The cost of the rebuild will be offset against the increased value of the land, which doubled when the heritage pub was demolished, and the ability to prepare the site for future development. 

The maximum penalties include $186,552 for breaking planning laws, $466,380 for illegal demolition and a potential fine of $750,000 for the illegal dumping of building materials and asbestos. But the reality is, should the matter go to court, maximum fines are rarely handed out.

In a recent case in NSW, property developer Bill Gertos was found to be personally liable for demolishing a heritage row of shopfronts in Sydney's inner west, in defiance of a heritage order. The potential fine was $1.1 million. The fine given by the court was $250,000. Mr Gertos didn't even bother showing up, with his lawyer telling the judge his client  "had another engagement".

When stacked up against the tens of millions of dollars on offer from developing such sites into apartment blocks, these paltry fines are considered merely a cost of doing business by developers, especially as no criminal conviction can be recorded.

This problem was highlighted in a recent review of the the Heritage Act, undertaken last year by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. It found there was strong support to "increase maximum penalties for unauthorised works and infringement notices". The report also noted that "Victoria's maximum penalty for unauthorised works to heritage places or objects is lower than most other Australian jurisdictions".

The Age welcomes the strong words taken by both the state government and the City of Melbourne over the Corkman demolition. But if we are to get rid of such rogue developers, we need more than just strong words. We need to speak the language property developers understand – money – and increase the fines for disregarding the law. Only then will we prevent such brazen acts of vandalism. 

This is especially crucial in the wake of a report by Acquisitions Performance Advisory earlier this year, which found that a record 800 heritage and "character" houses are being demolished each week in Australia, and Melbourne's inner suburbs are among the worst hit.

To put it in language Mr Shaqiri and Mr Kutlesovski and all property developers will understand, it's time to make them pay.

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