VivaGaia Village Bellingen proposal

Dominic Bertucci on the land he'd like to become the VivaGaia Village
Dominic Bertucci on the land he'd like to become the VivaGaia Village

Bellingen landowner Dominic Bertucci would like to see a housing development on either side of his property on North Bank Road in Bellingen.

One would make him money and the other would be a philanthropic venture.

His 24 hectares run down to the Bellinger River, with the flood-prone flats providing good grazing for cattle and sheep and a 100-year-old farmhouse sitting on the higher ground near the road.

East of the house are a few hectares he’d like to have rezoned for subdivision into blocks of varying sizes to be sold at market rates.

To the west, running towards the Community Gardens and the Bellingen Wastewater Treatment Facility, are a few more hectares he’d like to develop as affordable housing, in conjunction with Frances Amaroux, convenor of the Bellingen Affordable Housing Facebook group.

They’ve come up with a proposal to turn those 2.7 hectares of poor-quality grass into an equity-based, co-operative village containing 20 to 40 small, pop-up houses for older couples and singles (aged 45+) on low incomes.

There would also be a community hall for meals and gatherings, funded and built by the villagers, and land available for growing food.

The idea is that people would own their home, and it would only cost them $200 per week, with any increases pegged to the Commonwealth rental assistance supplement.

The pop-up houses, which vary in size from studio to three-bedroom, take 30–60 days to finish to lock-up and cost an average of $50,000.

The weekly $200 charge would include $130 towards paying off the house over ten years and $70 that would go to Dominic as rent, to gradually recoup the cost of providing the infrastructure.

He’s a retired civil engineer with substantial experience in designing, constructing and supervising the installation of roads, electricity, drainage and sewerage, and rather than just donating the land as it is, he’s prepared to help get it ready for occupation.

“What makes it affordable is we don’t have to buy the land,” Frances said. “Whenever we try to make truly affordable housing, it never is, because land is so expensive.

“The idea is that people who currently are never going to be able to afford a house –  ever – because you can’t get anything under $500,000 here, they’ll have this unique opportunity to own one for $200 a week.

“You’d pay that much to rent a room. It’s like a miracle.”

Frances, who has spent 27 years as a relationship counsellor, envisages the village as a cohesive community with procedures in place for non-violent communication, conflict resolution and sociocratic decision-making.

“I’m the social organiser,” she said. “We don’t want a ghetto, we want a thriving village. We’ll be choosing people with very clear criteria. Before they move in, they’ll need to show their willingness to negotiate and create win-wins.”

Convincing Bellingen Shire Council to get behind the project is the first step, so Frances would like to find someone with Development Application experience to join the team and devote 5–10 hours a week to shepherding it through council.

This person would need to be either a volunteer, or someone prepared to fund their own job by applying for grants.

Potential hurdles in terms of planning permissions include the odour buffer around the wastewater treatment plant and the slight noise the pumping mechanism emits at night.

However, Dominic is confident that neither poses much of a problem.

He’s never noticed a smell in the four and a half years he’s been living nearby and said the highway makes more noise than the plant.

“I asked Craig Salmon, the manager of the sewage plant, how many complaints he’s had for odour in the last five years and he said none. It’s to his credit, because it’s new technology and he’s got the team on the ball and they work to achieve a good result.

“People who’ve lived here all their lives say when it first went in, they could smell it, but they haven’t smelt it for years.

“The only complaints they’ve received were for noise. There’s a low motor noise that happens at night. And it’s an insignificant amount of noise compared to the problem that exists of people living in cars.

“Anyone who would want to live here would have to sign something saying that they realise [the plant] is there, and they can’t complain to the council or to us.”

Dominic was inspired to consider donating the 2.7 hectares after attending an affordable housing meeting last year.

“This land is too good just to have a cow eating grass on it,” he said. “We’re within walking distance of shops, medical facilities, the main street. Doing nothing with it is not an option.”

He noted, however, that the affordable housing on the western side does depend on him getting approval for the subdivision on the eastern side.

“That’s what allows me to be philanthropic,” he said. “I’ve gained at one end and I can give away at the other end.”

To date, Dominic’s discussions with council have not proved very encouraging, but he’s hoping they can be persuaded to adopt a more can-do attitude.

“The meeting was all about ‘you can’t do this’, ‘you can’t do that’. Instead of, ‘well, the idea is good but we’ve got a few hurdles to go over’.”

“We have to get public interest in this project, to get people saying, Council you have to step up and do something. You can’t let people live in cars.”

Anyone interested in helping with this initiative can contact Frances on 0414 810 148 or amaroux@me.com

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