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Bad sign: couple slapped with $65k council court costs

Ian and Janelle Pye are frustrated with the court costs they have been forced to pay to Gympie Regional Council over a non-compliant business sign (pictured here with The Gympie Times journalist Arthur Gorrie).
Ian and Janelle Pye are frustrated with the court costs they have been forced to pay to Gympie Regional Council over a non-compliant business sign (pictured here with The Gympie Times journalist Arthur Gorrie). Craig Warhurst

A GYMPIE couple have said they were "treated like bugs” by Gympie Regional Council after being forced to pay $65,000 in indemnity court costs over an oversized sign complaint.

Ian and Janelle Pye were hit with the fee after the Planning and Environment Court ruled their residential business sign violated the planning scheme and must be removed.

The problem arose from a typed mistake by the council in their development approval notification - an error they made twice.

While the court's ruling could not be denied, the Pyes felt they were considered as nothing more than a problem by the council, unable to even speak with councillors in an effort to find other solutions once the case started.

"Every time we asked to talk to someone, we were told we can't talk to you. The frustration out of that was horrific,” Mrs Pye said.

"We weren't part of the community.”

While there had been a council offer to replace it, the Pyes refused as the offer's maximum cap of $5000 (for removal of the old sign and purchase and erection of a new one) would not cover any lost business

"When the sign went up... there was a 50 per cent gain in turnover,” Mr Pye said.

Janelle and Ian Pye.
Janelle and Ian Pye. Trish Bowman

The Pyes were also perturbed by the difference in legal costs, with council claiming a total of $72,000 compared to their own $8800.

They said an independent assessor identified council's costs as $36,000, and they had offered $40,000 and even $50,000 but with no result.

Plansmart director Mike Hartley, who had worked on the Pye's application, said the whole process amounted to the council "using a sledgehammer to crack a nut”.

"We're talking about a sign here,” he said.

"I've never seen a case where a council has been so hard-nosed over such a minor development offence that was triggered by a mistake they made.”

He was concerned what it could mean for others who disagreed with council planning decisions, as cost payments are not automatically awarded by courts but had to be sought by either party.

"Council hasn't broken the law, but did it have to use it to that extent to get the outcome it got?”

A council spokeswoman said the council had been left with little recourse but court.

"(The) offer and all negotiations were refused, leaving council with no option, noting that council had received a number of complaints, and the matter then went to court.”

"Councillors were regularly updated in relation to the court matter and the council fully supported pursuing costs.”

She said councillors agreed on the costs endorsed, which "will go towards replacing the ratepayer dollars used for court costs”.

Questions on sign consistency

FOLLOWING his loss in court over a non-compliant sign, businessman Ian Pye has questioned Gympie Regional Council's planning enforcement consistency after a number of potentially non-compliant signs were also identified.

In an affadavit Mr Pye questioned the legality of 36 signs around the region, which he felt were also too large for their location in the planning scheme. According to a council planning officer's response dated October 2016, six signs were noted as "potential offence identified”.

It was further stated that "the signs associated with a home-based business mostly accord with the current planning scheme's intention for signage within a residential area...to not be overly prominent”.

"In comparison, the Pye sign is a free standing structure significantly elevated above ground level...that because of its location and dimensions, is highly prominent”.

Asked if there had been a follow up on the signs, a council spokeswoman said "they have not been the subject of complaint, but have been noted by Council's Compliance Unit for actioning”.

Topics:  court gympie council gympie regional council planning and environment town planning scheme

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