A council resolution made in closed session to no longer maintain or be responsible for two bridges on Garfield Rd, Numbugga, threatened to have a catastrophic impact on local farmers by removing access to their properties.
It also meant emergency services such as the Rural Fire Service would not have been able to access the area, which was done to great effect in 2018 when the Yankees Gap fire was out of control.
The confidential resolution was agreed by councillors in December 2017 and landholder Phil Chadwick received a letter from council in March 2018, to talk about the bridges and Garfield Rd.
He had to use a GIPA (freedom of information request) to access the confidential resolution affecting the livelihoods of his and neighbouring farms.
What he discovered was that council wanted to discontinue maintenance on part of Garfield Road, dissemble and abandon Johnson Creek Bridge and hand over Hanscombes Creek Bridge for him to maintain.
Mr Chadwick said he spoke with neighbour Barry and Nola Hergenhan and sent a response to council, but heard nothing more from council until a neighbour pointed out that the matter was on the agenda for the council meeting on Wednesday, May 29.
"From the resolution made in camera council wanted to wash its hands of the bridges and part of the road. That was catastrophic for us. We need the bridges for daily access. This would have the effect of withdrawing economic vehicular access to our farms and homes," Mr Chadwick said.
If council, with a $100million budget, can't afford to repair and maintain the bridges, what chance do I have?Phil Chadwick, Numbugga farmer
He said that some time ago council had imposed a 10-tonne limit on both bridges because of structural integrity issues.
"Since then our lives have suffered major material impacts," he said and cited transport of cattle and stock, deliveries of feed and fertiliser and farm equipment as all having been affected.
"During the worst of the dry spell Barry (Hergenhan) was feeding pellets to his stock and had to buy it in small quantities which was a lot more expensive.
"We can't farm efficiently. We can't easily build new structures nor maintain our properties, nor can we even protect them adequately because fire engines weigh more than 10t," Mr Chadwick said and added that Essential Energy couldn't access the high tension transmission lines on his property.
"I think somewhere in Bega Valley Shire, someone is trying to get rid of bridges. They are core pieces of community infrastructure," he said.
"If council, with a $100million budget, can't afford to repair and maintain the bridges, what chance do I have?"
The lesson is that there are lots of wooden bridges around this shire, but if they are not maintained people's lives can be affected.Phil Chadwick, farmer
At the council meeting Mr Chadwick's calm but firm presentation to councillors made an impact. It prompted Cr Russell Fitzpatrick to offer an apology for voting for the motion in closed session.
"If fire comes back we need the bridge, to me the bridge is vital. The process has been poorly handled over 50 years," Cr Fitzpatrick said.
Cr Cathy Griff also apologised saying that councillors read the reports but don't always see the human side. The mayor Kristy McBain also apologised.
As a result, council's director of assets and operations Anthony McMahon offered to bring a further report to council looking at the possibility of replacing one of the bridges with a culvert and trying to minimise the cost and impact to all parties.
Mr Chadwick said he was pleased with the reaction of councillors.
"I thought the whole of council was trying to destroy our economic viability.
"The lesson is that there are lots of wooden bridges around this shire, but if they are not maintained people's lives can be affected.
"I don't think council was appropriately transparent or engaged. They should have widely consulted with the community, the RFS and Essential Energy," Mr Chadwick said.
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Bridges provided access during fires
At the council meeting Mr Chadwick highlighted the important access the bridges provided during the fires last year.
"During the recent Numbugga fires, Belmont and Claremont burned. We had dozens of fire trucks and firefighters in attendance. We had Rural Fire Service vehicles repeatedly racing across the bridges, enabling the crews to establish and maintain containment lines. Without the bridges, who knows how much property or how many lives may have been lost in the district," he said.
He believed that the access was particularly important at one point when high winds were threatening to move the fire towards Bega.
"The Numbugga fire was stopped on my property. If they couldn't access that fire it was heading to Bega," he said.
"The response has been as good as could be expected given the amount of grief this has caused me and my neighbours," Mr Chadwick said.
"It is clear that councillors didn't understand what council was trying to do."
He said that the bridges were a core community asset, particularly relevant in an emergency and he wanted to see more people and organisations consulted.
"Yet council officers rebuffed every attempt we made to suggest that wider community engagement was indicated. They insisted that nobody except the Hergenhans and myself needed to be consulted.
"It felt as though we were dealing with a stealth agenda, to get the bridges disposed of before any meaningful community engagement could happen," Mr Chadwick told councillors.
Mr Hergenhan also said bridges were a vital part of the Valley's infrastructure.
"They were just going to dump it on to us," he said.
"Hopefully they will now maintain them into the future, which is all we wanted."