Acting CEO of City of Geelong takes own council to court over controversial planning decision

The acting chief executive of the City of Greater Geelong is taking his own council to court after it rejected his plans for a contentious property development that has infuriated nearby residents.

Guy Wilson-Browne held the senior role of city services director for five years.Credit:Twitter

Guy Wilson-Browne is seeking to implement a two-lot subdivision on land he owns in the Geelong suburb of St Albans Park and has taken the development application to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. The tribunal is scheduled to hear the case in June.

Council officers recommended the permit be approved, but councillors unanimously refused the proposal in October last year because of concerns about a perceived conflict of interest.

Wilson-Browne was director of city services at the time, a position he held since 2017.

He resigned from the council in December but is currently serving as acting chief executive before he begins a new role in February.

Wilson-Browne insisted an internal review had concluded the planning process was fair and he had appointed an external project manager to ensure he remained at “arm’s length at all times”.

He first applied to redevelop the land at 7-8 Oakwood Ridge in 2019, proposing a three-lot subdivision, but withdrew this application after neighbours expressed fears that the plan harmed the block’s historic horse racing links.

The property once formed part of a stud that bred nine Melbourne Cup winners and was where champion racehorse Phar Lap was hidden after an attempted shooting on Derby Day in 1930.

Local residents Kevin Neville and Renay McIntyre in front of the Phar Lap Tree.Credit:Wayne Taylor

A tree at the rear of the property, colloquially known as the Phar Lap Tree, is thought to be the burial site of several racehorses, including Briseis, which won the Melbourne Cup, Oaks and Derby races.

Heritage Victoria granted the property an inventory listing last year to protect its historical archaeology, preventing Wilson-Browne from conducting earthworks without approval.

Wilson-Browne’s amended application, submitted in 2022, sought to avoid the need for works near the tree in response to the community backlash. However, the plan received 45 objections and was opposed with an online petition that attracted about 1100 signatures.

Wilson-Browne was the subject of a 2018 probity complaint that was investigated by the council’s internal ombudsman.

He told The Age the review came after he sent emails in 2018 from his work email address to council officers inquiring about the St Albans Park property’s planning zone and services when he purchased it.

The ombudsman’s report has been kept secret by the council despite requests for its release.

Wilson-Browne, who said he always acted with integrity, insisted the internal review concluded the planning process had been fair and proper.

“The CEO advised me that the internal review was satisfied with the probity of the process,” Wilson-Browne said.

“The CEO did, however, say to me that whilst sending emails using a council work email is allowed on a limited basis it is not advisable. I agreed and from that point I have not sent any non-work emails from my work email address.”

He said he’d had no involvement in the planning process in recognition of his position at the council, hiring an external planning consultant and project manager to manage the application.

“I am simply hoping to build a single storey three-bedroom family home at the front of the property some 70 metres away from the significant tree and heritage area. The tree will be protected,” Wilson-Browne said.

The City of Greater Geelong refused to answer a series of questions about the matter, including whether Wilson-Browne had a conflict of interest or whether there could be a perceived conflict.

A spokesman would also not comment on the decision to appoint Wilson-Browne acting chief executive amid a VCAT challenge, only confirming he was in the role between January 9 and 18.

“The City of Greater Geelong does not comment on personnel matters,” the spokesman said.

In the October council meeting, councillor Stephanie Asher acknowledged the officers had found the proposal satisfied the planning scheme.

“For me the historic process issues aren’t ideal and I’m particularly uncomfortable with perceptions about transparency or lack of transparency,” she said.

“I’m not convinced that anything inappropriate has happened here, but there are a number of factors that have raised concerns clearly enough to generate a lot of passion from the objectors.”

Councillor Ron Nelson told the October meeting he had “flipped and flopped a few times” about the application. He said the issue should be decided in VCAT.

Kevin Neville and his family say they have found relics they believe date back to the old St Albans Stud.Credit:Wayne Taylor

“This issue I have is about probity and about how this looks,” he said.

The Age is not suggesting Wilson-Browne acted inappropriately.

Kevin Neville, a neighbour who has helped lead the community effort against the planned subdivision, said he objected to the amended plan because proposed sewer works would occur near the heritage-listed burial site.

“As we know horses are big … and no prior archaeological investigation has taken place,” Neville said.

He questioned the council’s decision to appoint Wilson-Browne acting chief executive given his legal challenge against the city, and added the community was exhausted after four years of battling the plans.

“It’s disappointing that the owner-developer is taking the councillors’ decision – which listened to objecting ratepayers’ concerns about this subdivision – to VCAT,” he said.

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