A PROPOSED fee hike will gag residents and pave the way for resource-rich developers to push projects through the planning tribunal, critics say.
Planning reform group Save Our Suburbs says the move to increase Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal fees will effectively silence locals. Neighbourhood residents' groups would face difficulty in affording the steep costs.
President Ian Wood said groups with the fewest objectors would be hardest hit. "VCAT was supposed to be the cheap avenue of appeal for ordinary lay people without having recourse to legal assistance."
From March, fees to lodge an objection with the tribunal are proposed to more than quadruple from $322 to $1462 if the development is between $1 million and $5 million. By 2015 the fee would rise to $2014. Fees for developments that cost more than $5 million will also rise to $1462 by March, up from $1290.
The fee hike comes as housing density in the outer east continues to increase.
Maroondah has seen a number of proposed new multi-storey developments in the past year.
The council was forced to defend several of its decisions that were appealed against at VCAT by developers.
Mr Wood said that developers who continually resorted to using lawyers assured that the tribunal's legal system — which was never meant to be user-pays — became more costly over time.
"The cases that go to VCAT are the ones where the developers are trying to push the boundaries," he said. "They've got the money to take advantage of it.
"The planning rules and planning schemes are not actually rules; they're just guidelines by and large. There are a few that are mandatory, but most of them can be argued."
Nicole Gale, president of Tecoma Village Action Group, said the fee rises mocked democracy.
She said hearings at VCAT were often a David and Goliath battle — like the group's bid to stop McDonald's opening in Tecoma.
"On one side you have families and individuals . . . and on the other you have big international corporations. It just adds insult to injury by raising the fees."
But a spokesman for the Baillieu government defended the increases.
"The previous Labor government failed to keep VCAT fees in line with the costs of running VCAT, meaning that an increasing and unreasonable share of the costs of running VCAT has been falling on taxpayers," he said.