ABC Online – Bay Islands

KIRRIN MCKECHNIE: When the southern Moreton Bay Islands were carved up and sold off by developers more than 30 years ago, no-one could have imagined the heartache to follow. It was a recipe for disaster: with insufficient infrastructure, the Redland Shire Council embarked on a program of buybacks and land swaps. But landholders have been battling for years to get a fair price from the Council. One took the matter to court and his victory forced the council to pay eight times its original offer. Dea Clark reports.

DEA CLARK: Like many others John and June Abrahamson bought land on Russell Island with a view to spending their retirement on what they call a little piece of paradise.

JUNE ABRAHAMSON, LAND OWNERS: We saw the potential back then and we could see a nice home with a tennis court and the family could come and visit us here cause we’re very family minded and it seemed an ideal place.

DEA CLARK: But in 1995, their dreams were dashed when the Redland shire council said it wanted to resume most of their property to make way for a boat ramp.

JOHN ABRAHAMSON LAND OWNER: They offered us $1,000 a block for our land and we thought they had to be joking because land at that time with the same zoning was selling for $20,000 and $25,000 dollars.

DEA CLARK: The Abrahamson’s neighbour, Darryl Aloe found himself in the same boat. He was offered $2,000 even though he’d just paid more than a $1,000 in rates.

DARRYL ALOE LAND OWNER: In the letter it said the land had drainage problems which was still to this day its residential A land. They said the land was low lying, which is no way we’ve had soil tests, and it’s all above board.

DEA CLARK: The council said the land could never be built on because of drainage problems making it virtually worthless. But not all the residents accepted the paltry offers; one even took the council to court and won.

COUNCILLOR MICHAEL GOODE, ACTING COUNCIL CEO REDLAND SHIRE COUNCIL: The valuation was set by land court we’re not we didn’t argue with the decision we accepted the decision of the land court that the value was $7,500 and that’s what we’ve paid and for those who settle later we’ll settle at $7,500 plus interest.

DEA CLARK: And that’s what the council offered for this waterfront property in 1998. Again it went to court. Earlier this year, the land court of Queensland awarded Mike Atkin $80,000 compensation, finding that while the land had drainage problems, it could’ve been built on.

COUNCILLOR MICHAEL GOODE: In that regard they took into account that they believe the drainage problem was caused by other factors outside the normal natural drainage there caused by filling of other properties surrounding it.

DEA CLARK: The council maintains Mr Atkin’s case is unique, but his lawyer says the ruling sets a precedent. One hundred former landholders have registered with Geoff Horne’s firm.

GEOFF HORNE, LAWYER: We are investigating all of those claims but it’s certainly the case that those people whose blocks were designated DP and who we think were deliberately brought to believe they would never be able to build on those blocks therefore that would render the blocks almost valueless is simply not the case.

COUNCILLOR MICHAEL GOODE: There was a two year study done identifying every block over there and then what we did was had the two year study of all those blocks confirmed then by the government valuers and their planning people as well who also investigated those and confirmed with us that they were drainage problem blocks.

DEA CLARK: That study was in response to the long term problems created in the 1960’s and 70’s when developers saw a loop hole in the state government’s land act. They sub-divided the islands into 20,000 allotments even selling land which went under water at high tide. The council says it was under no obligation to help the land owners but in 2001 it offered a voluntary purchase scheme offering to buy selected blocks for between $2,000 and $3,000. But Geoff Horne says telling residents their land could never be built on because of drainage problems may have been misleading.

GEOFF HORNE: The fact that those blocks and we’re taking in excess of 500 allotments that we know of on the island that have had that designation applied to them it is quite possible that many of those blocks would be able to be built on.

DEA CLARK: The council says hundreds accepted the offer which it says was more than fair.

COUNCILLORMICHAEL GOODE: What they currently had was not land valued at that amount of money their land couldn’t be built on their land was valueless there was no way a house could’ve been built there or a residence built there but council said what we will do is we’ll offer you money equivalent to a good block of land on the island similar to where you are.

DEA CLARK: But valuer Ian Herriot says at the time, dry blocks were selling for up to $8,000. And the bay islands haven’t been immune to the recent property boom.

IAIN HERRIOT, LAND VALUER: There’s vacant block of land that’s just sold up the street for $260,000 very comparable to this one. There’s a couple of houses one of the high side one on the low side that’ve sold for low $300,000’s so it’s become a very popular part of the world and as you can see from looking around it’s a beautiful place to live.

DEA CLARK: Council is still under pressure to reduce the population and another 800 blocks have been earmarked for resumption. The Redland shire council could be facing a financial nightmare.

GEOFF HORNE: Many of those blocks now in reality being valued in excess of a couple of hundred thousand dollars you don’t have to do any great feet of maths to realise that you’re talking about tens of millions of dollars.

DEA CLARK: The council has begun dealing with the issue by way of land swaps and limiting development rights to two years. A move which saw the state government step in to extend those rights for ten years. But the new legislation has many worried about what it means for landowners rights.

IAIN HERRIOT: If you don’t apply and if you don’t get a building approval within ten years your land reverts to conservation with no building rights whatsoever it’s a scandal.

BRIAN PADDERSON, RESIDENT: One of the clauses could be interpreted that if you apply for your application under the new bill you could lose your right to compensation now that’s just my interpretation and I could be wrong.

DEA CLARK: But for some no amount of money will be enough to compensate for the anguish caused by this long running battle.

DARRYL ALOE: I still have the deeds I have not received any money any money wouldn’t pay for this land I want my land back and I would like the boat ramp gone from my land.

JUNE ABRAHAMSON: If the council don’t want to pay us adequate compensation then we’ll have our land back that’s what we want now our land back.