HALLS GAP - Halls Gap Zoo owner Greg Cullel, is at a loss as to why the Northern Grampians Shire Council refused to amend a permit to allow for the zoo's continued expansion.
Mr Cullel, who described the decision by council to refuse an application for the introduction of four new species to the zoo, as 'absolute incompetence', said he would be taking the matter to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
Council voted 4-3 to refuse the permit, with Crs Karen Hyslop, Kevin Erwin and Mayor, Cr Wayne Rice, supporting the application.
Mr Cullel said the decision clearly showed council was not in favour of progress.
"There has been a litany of disasters in the last six years involving this council since we have owned the zoo," Mr Cullel said.
"Council is calling it a decision. I am calling it absolute incompetence. We have seven species of primates already at the zoo and now they are knocking us back on others. I just don't understand where they are coming from."
The application was originally for the introduction of five species - the Siamang ape, white cheeked gibbon, golden lion tamarin, hamadryas baboon and the black and white ruff lemur.
The zoo withdrew the Siamang ape from the application because of noise.
Noise and loss of amenity were the focus of objections received after council gave notice of the application to properties within a 1.6-kilometre radius of the zoo.
"We deliberately put in separate applications because some of the animals do make some noise," Mr Cullel said.
"I can understand them knocking the gibbons back, but the baboons don't make any noise. The golden lion tamarin is the size of a kitten and nobody is going to hear them."
Mr Cullel said he and his wife Yvonne had always been committed to investing in the shire, but he wasn't feeling the same commitment from council.
"Council has an opportunity of a lifetime with his business, but they are knocking us back," he said.
"What council, what town, has people knocking on the door saying we want to bring meerkats, giraffes, lemurs, baboons to you?
"We are committed to ensuring that 85% of our turnover is spent in Stawell, Halls Gap, Ararat and Horsham. We commit to spending our money and investing in our direct area, because we know how important it is for small towns to look after each other.
"Council doesn't seem to share that view or that commitment."
Mr Cullel said the level of investment that council was knocking back as a result of refusing the permit was enormous.
"We've invested $2.5 million into the business already and were planning to spent at least that again on future expansion," he said.
"We have gone from one part-time employee to 14 full-time equivalent employees in five years.
"There is potential there in the next three years to employ 50-plus people and despite this, the council doesn't support us. They do nothing for us.
"As a result of the decision we've already had to cancel employment for two zoo keepers who were moving from New Zealand. The botched decision has also impacted on six international zoos."
Mr Cullel said the most frustrating aspect was the fact that council officers had previously advised that all permits were in place for future expansions.
"We were told that all permits were in place for the zoo to expand over the next 10 years," he said.
"Three years down the track, we are being told we haven't got the right permits.
"We had already reapplied for a zoo permit and council granted it. Now council is knocking us back on zoo animals.
"As a result, we have to spend three, four or five thousand dollars taking the matter to VCAT. That's money leaving this district that will never come back."
Mr Cullel said it was also the experience of allowing people to be up close to these animals, that council was denying.
"What an unbelievable experience it would be for people to come out and stay close by and visit the zoo," he said.
"People pay thousands of dollars to travel to Africa to see some of these animals. We are offering it right here on their doorstep, but council is willing to throw that opportunity away.
"We are offering council an opportunity to have a showcase right here and they won't support us. If it's all too hard for them, they should all resign and let's get some people in there who are prepared to make decisions, prepared to support businesses and who aren't frightened to upset a few people along the way.
"It is very frustrating for Yvonne and I because we work seven days a week to provide this experience for people. We have invested everything we had into the business. This is all we own. It's our life.
"We have told council we want to invest, we want to employ more people and yet, they continue to stimie us. Not only that, they now want us to spend $85,000 to install a turning lane at the front of our property, even though it was council's mistake. That's how ridiculous this whole thing has become.
"I will say, one councillor in particular has been tremendous for us and has bent over backwards for us. We also appreciate the fact that our mayor is working hard to have this rectified and to see that common sense prevails."