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Jul 16, 2013

Would a McDonalds in this town be all downside?

Residents of ex-urban Tecoma are fiercely resisting a proposed McDonalds restaurant which they fear will destroy the character of their village. But would a McDonalds be all downside?

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Site of proposed McDonalds restaurant in Tecoma, Dandenong Ranges (click to look around in Google Streetview)

The township of Tecoma on the outskirts of Melbourne has been battling against the prospect of a new 24 hour McDonalds franchise in their village since 2011. Yarra Ranges Shire Council received over 1,300 objections to the proposed restaurant. A record 650 residents attended the Council meeting to consider the company’s application.

According to community group burgeroff.org, the objections raised concerns relating to:

traffic, litter, noise, crime, impact on existing local businesses, locality opposite a Primary and Pre School, proximity within 1 kilometre of a National Park, the development not befitting the character of the Hills, the demolition of the historic Hazel Vale Dairy building which currently resides at the proposed site, local amenity issues and the fact that there are no 24 hour fast food outlets with drive-thrus in the entire Dandenong Ranges.

Council did what local government often does with hot issues like this and refused the application notwithstanding that a convenience restaurant is a permissible use of the land under the Planning Scheme without a permit (a permit is required to develop the land, though).

McDonalds appealed to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) which found the proposal conformed to the Planning Scheme and set aside Council’s decision. VCAT found (McDonalds P/L vs Yarra Ranges SC) that many of the potential adverse outcomes identified by community members weren’t relevant planning considerations. It concluded that:

The matters that are before us include activation of the Tecoma activity centre as encouraged by policy, integration with the streetscape, building design, landscaping and traffic and parking. We are satisfied that this proposal complies with the Scheme. It would be a contemporary and well designed building that would fit well into the streetscape. It would provide additional landscaping consistent with the vegetation in the locality. We find that the location and operation of its access, loading bay and car parking areas would be satisfactory. Its signage and illumination can be designed to reflect the Tecoma streetscape and night time character. In general, it provides local employment opportunities, supports tourism and broadens the business mix in the centre, as encouraged by policy.

Council decided it wouldn’t take the matter any further. However residents still feel very strongly about the prospect of a McDonalds in their neighbourhood and have occupied the site to prevent construction starting. They’ve reportedly enlisted the support of unions.

Here’s a remarkably passionate and committed letter from Tecoma resident Karl Williams published in The Age earlier this month:

I have just spent two days and nights atop the Tecoma buildings earmarked for demolition by McDonald’s, defying police orders to come down. In my 57 years, I’ve never dreamt of breaking the law and nor has my wife, who accompanied me.

Outrage can be a wonderfully motivating urge to action. About 92 per cent of locals are opposed to the outlet, mainly because of the effect it will have on the leafy, sleepy, hills town character that attracted us to move here. Our anger results from the failure of our democratic system of government to allow citizens to engage in a just legal contest against wealthy corporate interests.

McDonald’s has treated council’s unanimous rejection of its plan as a minor nuisance, knowing that its legal battalion and expert witnesses can overwhelm any opposition at VCAT. We had to come down for pressing family reasons, but are definitely returning. Sometimes you have to break the law to change the law.

That the prospect of a fast food restaurant could provoke a resident to consider “breaking the law to change the law” suggests this isn’t just about, or even primarily about, traditional planning considerations. It’s the sort of sentiment usually associated with matters of high principle.

Notwithstanding the various instrumental objections raised by residents (and rejected by VCAT), I think this is mostly about the idea of a chain fast food restaurant in a “leafy, sleepy” place like Tecoma. Residents didn’t think they were signing up to the corporate and consumerist values associated with McDonalds when they chose to settle in this bucolic ex-urb in the charming Dandenong Ranges.

The media has elected to focus on the protest dimension, but there are other matters relevant to this debate. For example, what about the employment, tourism and activity centre activation benefits cited by VCAT? Would a sympathetically designed McDonalds in the main street really put the character of Tecoma at risk? Did the large BP servo across the road from the proposed site generate the same level of opposition? How do residents feel about Tecoma Fish and Chips?

It’s also likely there’re people in the region who don’t have the same visceral negative reaction to the idea of a McDonalds. They might feel they’d benefit from a more accessible  outlet.

The company has presumably done the research to establish there’s sufficient demand for its products to support a 24 hour operation. The nearest existing McDonalds is a considerable distance away at Ferntree Gully, about 6 km closer to the city along the Burwood Hwy.

McDonalds is unappealing to some people but for others it offers a very attractive package in terms of service, convenience and value for money.

The latter group might be less sophisticated on average than those opposing the proposal and they might be less able to afford alternatives, but I can’t see any reason why their interests shouldn’t be given the same regard.

Regular consumption of fast food is unhealthy and some reckon that’s sufficient grounds to oppose opening further fast food outlets. Obesity and diabetes are major national health issues, however they should be tackled in ways that directly address all unhealthy foods, not just that offered by some businesses in some locations.

There are already many McDonalds franchises in metropolitan Melbourne (see map) not to mention myriad other fast food outlets (even food carts!). Preventing further ones opening on health policy grounds risks charges of discrimination, ignoring consumer choice, effectively subsidising existing food and snack businesses, and possibly promoting car travel. If done in isolation it would almost certainly be ineffective.

There’s more than one way of looking at issues like this and they all need to be considered.

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

The Urbanist is edited by Dr Alan Davies, a principal of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy, Pollard Davies Consulting.

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107 thoughts on “Would a McDonalds in this town be all downside?

  1. Joseph Smith

    VCAT bashing, blah, blah, blah, you ignorant idiots.
    What the protesters fail to disclose, or most are are too ill informed to know what they are talking about is that the Yarra Ranges Shire Council’s planning department recommended approval of the Tecoma McDonalds application.
    The application was supported by all internal referral departments of Council (statutory and strategic planning, urban design, traffic, waste management, health, etc) as well as by VicRoads since its on a State Highway. These are the professional staff employed by Council and by the state government to make these decisions.
    The officer recommendation was overturned on a purely political decision by the elected Council, who lets face it, lack any relevant planning knowledge and are all too scared to make the correct call on the powers that have been delegated to them to implement their planning scheme.
    Council then proceeded to spend several hundred thousands on legal and consulting fees at VCAT on a case that they had zero chance of winning (which they knew as their own officers and legal counsel would have told them – notice that Council did not have any witnesses supporting their indefensible position although they certainly would have tried to find some to no avail).
    This Council like many do, used VCAT as the whipping boy to save face, rather than make the tough and just decision it was required to by law.
    VCAT is not pro-development, ask any developer that goes there or anyone working in the industry. VCAT is very conservative, more so than some Councils.
    Most cases that overturn Council refusals are just like this, the Council officers recommend approval, the elected Council ignore this because of objections, and surprise, surprise once all the outlandish cries of my kids are gonna get killed by cars and trucks, it’s too ugly, too big, my house will lose value and, I just don’t like it just because, have been heard, VCAT concluded the same as the Council officers in the first place.
    If it weren’t for VCAT keeping these political decisions in line, Councils would be stripped of their powers to make these decisions in the first place like has happened in some activity centres across Melbourne where development is being facilitated at a faster pace that Council politics can handle.
    The real story is that there are many thousands of rate paying residents of Yarra Ranges and Tecoma is all but a pimple at the foot of the Dandenongs, could this money have been better spent by Council rather putting up this political charade? Thankfully they didn’t stupidly go to the Supreme Court wasting any more money.

  2. Nick Seidenman


    Planning Scheme clause 65 makes it pretty clear that the local council (eke “responsible authority” a) is not required to issue a permit simply because one CAN be issued, but must also b) determine if the proposed application is “acceptable”. Acceptability has numerous components, including amenity, compliance with published local planning and environment guidelines and goals, social and economic impact, and so forth. The council, which KNOWS the region and population that elected them, undertook to study these issues and consider ALL factors, including support and opposition to the development before rendering their decision.

    VCAT undertook no such study, has no such interest or understanding of the region, the people, our hopes and aspirations, the amenity we enjoy, &c. After 8 days of hearings, and three visits to the site, they shrugged and said “we see no problem with a maccas here.” The fact that THEY “SAW” no problem, IS the problem. THEY do not live here. THEY will not suffer any consequence, any loss of amenity, any drop in property value, any increase in crime or litter. The only way to appeal that decision — is to wage a very costly battle in the Vic Supreme Court. Furthermore, such appeal must be with regard to an error of law. Fortunately, there were indeed such errors, which gave us the necessary standing. However, doing so would almost certainly result in the matter simply being referred back to VCAT, with orders to correct those errors, and may or may not have resulted in VCAT reversing themselves altogether.

    As for why I’m not so critical of the council, who says I’m not? This discussion isn’t served by such criticism, and would only cloud what I hold to be the more pertinent issue.

    As for an appeal, the fact is that just because there IS an avenue of appeal, doesn’t necessarily mean it can be exercised. In the case of our local council, the VCAT decision came out within the month prior to local council elections, that is, during a time when the council is, by charter, in “caretaker” mode and may not, therefore, commit to any long-range or large-scale endeavours. VCAT appeals to the Vic Supreme Court must be filed within 30 days of the decision’s publication, which fell just a day or two short of the council elections, but almost a week before the incoming council would be sworn in and have their first meeting.

    The outgoing council did bring the matter to a vote and, for the “caretaker” reason as well as out of fear that McDonalds would make good on their threat to seek costs — an amount one council member (I think it was the mayor, Cr. Avery) compared to writing Maccas a “blank check” — the council voted 6 to 3 against filing a notice of appeal. Cr. Dunn tried to bring this to a vote again with the new council, anticipating that VSC might accept a late appeal given the circumstances, but it was again voted down, likewise out of fear of McDonalds ability to “out-spend / out-lawyer” the SYR.

    While I, personally, think that the council would have won either way — who’s gonna eat at that maccas knowing that they’re supporting a company that goes around beating up on the litte guy? — I can understand their apprehension, their fear, and their consideration of being accountable for how SYRC funds are spent. But, don’t worry. This issue will indeed come up in about two years, when elections are held again. And THIS voting rate-payor will remember.

  3. Russ

    Fascinating discussion. It seems to me people have an issue with the planning system’s inability to discriminate by particular use – as opposed to generic retail – rather than any aspect of the urban realm. Fair enough, a lot of people think they should have that right, but I’d be careful what you wish for.

    The groups opposed to the St Kilda Triangle did so because they disliked chain stores, and if anything the failure of that project has accelerated the takeover by high-value chains in existing retail spaces because of a lack of space.

    Supermarket chains regularly oppose competition in their catchment areas, because it allows them to price-gouge customers if they are the only retailer.

    And finally, companies can and do influence democracy too. The more scope there is for politics over legal process the more likely major corporations can influence the decisions being made. Widespread blocking of commercial activity on use grounds will lead to campaigns for commercial development to be decided by state government, not locally; and for local businesses (both major and minor) to shut out competitors via political influence.

    The planning scheme isn’t – and shouldn’t be – designed to control the local retail market. If anything it already has to much power to create perverse outcomes. What it should do is maintain the urban realm, which in this case would be to argue for no drive-through and no on-site car parking, as Tecoma already has sufficient in the evening. But those clauses also need to be introduced to the scheme before a proposal gets to council. Leaving planning to the whims of democracy is not planning at all.

  4. Nick Seidenman

    Responding to LadyStarDust64 (#65) and Tom, generally:


    FTA: “Fast food chains in Japan, China and Great Britain have begun piloting the use of robots to cook meals. And while robots have been emerging in recent years as a boon for completing menial tasks like dispensing medicines in hospitals, these fast food robots are capable of preparing full sushi rolls or noodle dishes for Asian food outlets. In many cases, customers complete their orders through a touchscreen, which then alerts the robot how to prepare the meal. No humans needed.”

    To reiterate the point I was making, McDonalds claims to bringing employemnt to the region are, at best, empty. In fact, I’d say they’re false, given that they have already begun installing the touch-screen ordering stations at existing stores in Melbourne.

  5. Austin M

    I imagine there are many things the council could have put in their planning scheme to make it very difficult for a fast food outlet in this area.
    Some kind of built form overlay could be a good starting point like a design development overlay for the Dandenong Ranges Area. In this overlay I believe they can reference local planning policies which are to be complied with. Then council would need to draw up appropriate local planning policies (they could restrict things like drive throughs, parking provision, signage, venue seating capacity, aesthetic of buildings, continuous hours of operation, high patron turnover business etc.). It might be a stretch but they may have even been able to ban large franchise and outlet chains also arguing they wanted to keep a local feel to all businesses in the region protecting the important tourist image of the area as quaint hillside villages and B+Bs (the question is then how you deal with IGAs, BPs etc. but some exemptions could be made or it may only apply to new developments etc.). The effectiveness of each individual measure on its own may be questionable but combined together it would represent a comprehensive set of requirements which severely limit the ability for what the council I assume sees as unsupported proposed developments.
    45 there is a good chance that like maccas plans in the area there are house development plans in the area that are also wrongly being knocked back by council. The easiest thing in the world to say is No and id hazard that the shire in question is closer to a preservation side of the development spectrum from the setout.

  6. Alan Davies

    Someone sent me this link, presumably to show that there’s also a group in favour of the McDonalds in Tecoma. I’m passing it on for information; make of it what you will.

  7. Alan Davies

    Highriser #21:

    Many planning issues involve conflicts between the interests of both local and wider communities. For example, opposition from existing residents to housing developments like this one in Armadale, this one in Bundoora, and this one in Ivanhoe, ultimately have an impact on regional housing supply and affordability. Perhaps the Tecoma case is an exception, but in many cases simply doing what the local community wants also imposes costs on others. That doesn’t mean the local view shouldn’t prevail, but the incidence of costs needs to be taken into account.

    And FYI there are marked geographical differences by income/education across cities. The same pattern is frequently reflected in the winners and losers from planning decisions. These sorts of differences are a central fact about cities.

  8. Nick Seidenman

    Thank you for your reply, Alan.

    There were two conditions that had to be met for McDonalds to build there. Right of use was one, but, that was never in dispute. The other pertained to planning and environment “acceptability”, which was up to the council to assess and determine.

    If you read the VCAT decision it is not decided on any legal grounds, rather, on the basis of the subjective opinion of two people who are not elected and who will bear no consequence stemming from their decision. They repeatedly use the phrase “we find ____ acceptable”. What is “acceptable” to someone who doesn’t live here is not necessarily (and in fact is NOT) acceptable to those of us who do.

    (Speaking of which, I’d like to point out that, based on past conversations in other forums, it has long since been determined that Ms. Bailey and Mr. Eldon do not actually live in or anywhere near Tecoma.)

    Getting back to the subject, absent a permit to build a restaurant, McDonalds still has right of use, including selling the land or donating it to the council as a good will gesture. (It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve done this.)

    Look, if this were some sort of split decision, of if there was an obvious lack of consensus in the community, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. The fact that there was a very clearly expressed resistance to having a Maccas in Tecoma couple with the fact that the council voted unanimously against approving their development permit (with nearly 1000 of us in attendance at the meeting when they did, by the way) establishes beyond any reasonable doubt that it is unwanted and that it is UNACCEPTABLE to us and to the council. That should have been the end of it.

    That VCAT actually agreed to hear the case is remarkable. That two unelected, non-lawyers made a determination of law that overrode the unanimous decision of a duly-elected local council isn’t just wrong; it’s sets a dangerous precedent for the future of democracy in Victoria and Australia. Today this case is about a McDonalds in Tecoma. Tomorrow it will — WILL — be about something truly onerous, perhaps even deadly, in YOUR neighborhood. What’s to stop VCAT from finding, say, a gas-fracking operations “acceptable” in Drouin, or development on top of a landfill known to contain PCBs that are “acceptable”? As of right now … absolutely nothing, Alan. Nothing.

    Keeping the focus on questions like “but what’s really wrong with a McDonalds?” badly misses the point. Please try to see past the instant case, to what the ramifications truly are. This is no slippery-slope argument, Alan. The consequences of the VCAT decision are fact, and other developers and corporate interests are already moving to take full advantage of it. This “win” for McDonalds is a win for any and all who have sufficient money to override the democratic voice of the people.

  9. Alan Davies

    Nick Seidenmann #13:

    But according to the VCAT decision, you must be talking about the permit needed for the development of the site because a permit isn’t necessary for the use of the site i.e. to carry on a fast food business. Not easy to knock off a proposal solely on the basis of a development permit when the applicant is prepared to be amenable e.g the proposed sign with the Golden Arches logo appears to be considerably smaller and less prominent than the existing sign advertising the Noodle and Pizza cafes.

    Christine Bailey #14:

    Burger.off says that all households in Tecoma were interviewed and 88% of residents (1,085 people) said they were against the proposal. At the 2011 Census there were 1500 residents aged 20 years or more, so the claim doesn’t sound right. More relevant though that Tecoma occupies only a relatively small part of the catchment – see ABS map.

  10. Alan Davies

    Michael Nolan #3, Moray Taylor #8, Nick Seidenmann #12:

    Blaming VCAT seems unfair. The decision linked to in the article is worth reading (here’s a direct link). It indicates a permit is only required for the development of the land. Operating a fast food restaurant however is permissible in the commercial area of Tecoma as of right under Council’s Planning Scheme. It looks to me like Council, under intense political pressure, duck-shoved the issue off to VCAT.

  11. Nick Seidenman

    Our protest isn’t about McDonalds per se. Our protest is mainly about protecting the democratic process by which we determine the character and composition of our community. Our local council spent months carefully studying the McDonalds application. They also received an unprecedented number of written objections from our community — over 1,100 of them — and carefully considered the application before finally, unanimously voting to deny it, as is their right and responsibility under planning scheme clause 65.

    McDonalds took the game to a “court” where democracy is irrelevant, where the party who can put on the more expensive show stands the better chance of winning. McDonalds, having the bigger purse, one in that venue. Two people, who are not judges — they’re not even lawyers — who are not elected, but appointed by the governor general, overturned our council’s decision after just a few days of hearings and deliberation.

    Our council considered an appeal to the Vic supreme court, but McDonalds had already threatened to sue for costs should that appeal fail. Afraid of the risk of having to pay perhaps as much as a million dollars or more in the event of such a loss, the council voted against pursuing it further. This was a matter of dollars winning out over democracy, plain and simple.

    This isn’t just about McDonalds and why it may or may not be good for your health or for the community. This is about large corporations circumventing or altogether obviating the democratic process by using unelected, unaccountable decision-making entities such as VCAT. Today it’s about McDonalds in Tecoma. Tomorrow, it could well be about gas drilling or a landfill in YOUR town. THAT is what our fight is really about.

  12. Saugoof

    One the one hand I’m a bit uncomfortable with selectively applying restrictions on some businesses, say a McDonalds versus a local cafe. But that said, I am all for denying them permission to build another outlet there. It’s just that I don’t really have any solid reasons beyond not wanting to have yet another small town homogenised.

    Some years ago I bought a car and crossed the US for a couple of months. Every country town you go to there looks the same. Each has the same fast food chains, the same motel chains, the same supermarkets, the same chain stores, even the same barely localised radio stations. There is no local character and it’s very unusual to find a store, restaurant or motel that isn’t some sort of national or regional chain. The only exception are pubs (market opportunity anyone?).

    My argument for not wanting a McDonalds in Tecoma is simply that even though I’m not a resident, I’d hate for the same thing to happen in Australia, or at least worse than it already has. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a McDonalds, Red Rooster, Nandos or whatever, I’d just prefer being able to be able to go to a town like Tecoma and for there to be somewhat of a surprise in store. Oftentimes companies like McDonalds with their financial and advertising muscle quickly kill off the local competition, so once a chain store like that moves in, it doesn’t take long before the only other stores that can survive are other chain stores.

    One specific argument that I was surprised no one has made (that I heard of anyway) is the smell. The thing that puts me off McDonalds (and even worse, Subway) is the godawful stink that the pester the area with.

  13. Michael Nolan

    Yes, it is indeed about ‘the idea of a chain fast food restaurant in a “leafy, sleepy” place like Tecoma’. It is also about the idea that this state’s unelected, blindly pro-development VCAT tribunal can overturn locally elected council decisions, in the face of overwhelming community sentiment. And the idea that once a fast-food chain is approved it will be more difficult to oppose its competitors, and hence Dandenongs residents can look forward to generic strips of multinational pizza, burger and chicken chain outlets. And the idea that ‘consumer choice’ should hardly be our first concern in an already choice-saturated society. And the idea that ‘activation of the Tecoma activity centre’ is linguistic waffle that amounts to one of the world’s most aggressively marketed companies, luring all tourist traffic away from any other enterprise in the tiny strip of shops, who won’t even leave their cars in the process. And the idea that a quiet neighbourhood with no other business of any kind open 24-hours will be improved by the poisonous atmosphere of a fast-food chain outlet at 2am. And the idea that diverting traffic in and out of a drive-though on the corner of a two-lane highway that already bottlenecks at peak times is somehow balanced by the fact that rejecting such a proposal possibly promotes car travel for those who want fast food at all hours. These, and other ideas, play into the community’s objection to this development. Yes, ‘there’s more than one way of looking at issues like this’, but noting that other McDonald’s franchises exist elsewhere, and that rejecting new ones benefits existing businesses, doesn’t amount to a compelling argument in this proposal’s favour.

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