Landowners at 12 Apostles say government’s acquisition will kill their family business

Key points

  • The state government will compulsorily acquire farmland opposite the Twelve Apostles. 
  • The owners of the land say it’s a waste of taxpayer money and will ruin their helicopter business. 
  • Governments have long sought to derive greater economic benefit from the Twelve Apostles. 

The owners of prime farmland opposite the Twelve Apostles have lashed the state government’s plan to compulsorily acquire the property as a waste of taxpayer money that will ruin their helicopter business.

The government is acquiring the Princetown land overlooking the popular coastal attraction to make way for a $108 million tourism development, which is part of a deal with the federal government.

The Twelve Apostles are one of Victoria’s most popular tourist attractions.Credit:iStock

But the property owners, Richard and Ashley Nesseler, say they had plans to build their own tourism development at the site that would run alongside their helicopter tours business.

Richard said his family, which has farmed the land since the 1970s before buying it in the 1990s, were devastated at the prospect of losing part of their property where they run sheep.

“It really hurts. We’re gobsmacked,” he said.

Last month, the Nesselers received a letter from the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, indicating it intended to proceed with a compulsory acquisition of the land. Previous attempts to reach a negotiated arrangement failed.

The Nesseler family at their helicopter business site.

The 32-hectare site earmarked for acquisition sits within broader farmland the Nesselers own.

Richard said that pre-pandemic, his company was flying about 120,000 people a year with its fleet of 10 helicopters.

But he said the area left over after the government acquires the land would make it impossible for him to safely land helicopters at the helipad in its current position.

“They’ve underestimated the way the helicopters need to access that site,” he said. “We need a clear path into and out of that area.”

Governments have long sought to derive greater economic gains from the Twelve Apostles, which sits inside Port Campbell National Park, with many visitors making quick day trips to the site without staying overnight or spending money in local communities.

The Great Ocean Road Regional Tourism said in 2019 that the Twelve Apostles attract 2.8 million visitors each year and that was forecast to grow to 4 million by 2026.

Richard said the department had not indicated how much it would compensate his family for the property, but the land had “limitless” potential and the true cost may run into tens of millions of dollars.

“The helicopters have just explored one tiny avenue of that,” he said. “The government is ripping that opportunity away from us and future generations of this family.”

The acquisition letter said the government intended to seek an exemption to the requirement to reserve the land for a public purpose, allowing it to bypass normal planning requirements and expedite the acquisition process.

Tourists at the Twelve Apostles.Credit:Joe Armao

But the Nesselers argue this exemption would deny them the right to an independent examination of the government’s planned acquisition and set a worrying precedent for other businesses located on private land with strong earning potential.

A government spokeswoman said the Twelve Apostles redevelopment project was jointly funded by the state and federal governments and was among many projects that were part of a Geelong city deal.

She did not respond to questions about why the government was seeking an exemption to normal planning processes or who would operate the businesses at the site once the development was completed.

In 2018, the Nesselers unveiled plans to deliver their own tourism development on the site, which included a restaurant, cafe, visitor centre, toilet block and viewing terrace. They had commissioned McIntyre Partnership Architects to design the project.

The family argues they are willing to pay for the development themselves and spare the government from spending taxpayer funds.

The government’s plan for the site includes a new visitor centre, a temporary events space, landscaping and gardens, a visitor shuttle, and new access roads.

The Nesselers are currently leasing part of their property to Parks Victoria, which operates a kiosk and toilet block on the site.

Local state Liberal MP Richard Riordan said the government’s treatment of the Nesselers was outrageous.

“This is complete insanity,” he said. “It’s a complete waste of taxpayer money.”

Regional Development Australia was contacted for comment.

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