One of Stawell's natural landmarks is set to change hands after the Northern Grampians Shire Council moved to return the Sisters Rock site to traditional owners at their April meeting on Monday.
The council voted to move and accept the recommendation to transfer the Sisters Rocks site without consideration to the Victorian Government, who will then decide the appropriate public body to determine the management arrangements and associated funding for the land.
As part of the land ownership process the council also moved the motion with the assurance that the transfer of ownership will not affect the Western Highway Duplication (Ararat to Stawell) project.
In their April meeting Northern Grampians Shire Council councillor Rob Haswell moved the motion and described it as a step in the right direction towards reconciliation.
"It is something positive we can do with the Sisters Rocks site and it will not impinged on the Highway project that is happening," he said.
"I think it is a great step forward and a fabulous thing to do and I am all for it."
Councillor Tony Driscoll seconded the motion and said it would be a "powerful act".
"From the Council's perspective it would be a powerful act of reconciliation that we can perform on behalf of the community in recognising indigenous culture," he said.
"From that perspective I certainly commend the council."
Councillor Eddy Ostracevic offered an alternative solution to council, where the Northern Grampians Shire Council would take direct responsibility to handing the site to the Barengi Gadjin Land Council Aboriginal Corporation (BGLC).
"I have thought about this motion and I find the optics of it slightly circuitous," he said.
"I feel we would be better placed to make the offer directly to the community.
"I do note that the motion specifically speaks to the issue of where Sisters Rocks will go rather than an open ended offering where we don't know if the State Government will acknowledge those wishes."
The initial recommendation won the vote four-to-three, and State Government will be responsible for the transition of ownership.
The land will be returned to the WJJWJ Peoples as part of the Traditional Owners Settlement Act 2010 (Vic) (TOS Act).
Sisters Rocks are a culturally significant site to the Wotjobaluk, Jaadwa, Jadawadjali, Wergaia and Jupagulk Peoples (WJJWJ Peoples), who have been seeking changes to the lands ownership for some time.
The BGLC is the entity that represents the WJJWJ Peoples and they have expressed their aspiration for the Sisters Rocks site to be returned to the WJJWJ Peoples.
The Sisters Rocks, along the Western Highway are a grouping of granite tors which form a dramatic landmark on the eastern approach to Stawell. The area has been a picnic and tourist destination since settlement in the area.
The rocks facing the public access are now heavily covered in graffiti which dates back over most of the 20th century. It is an area of debate that this is an historical record or ugly disfigurement of the natural beauty of the rocks.
The Victorian Heritage Database lists Sisters Rocks as socially and aesthetically significant at a local level and an important landmark in the area with a level of significance as 'recommended for Heritage Overlay' since 2004.
The Sisters Rocks site, comprising of approximately four hectares, is reported to be one of the first successful attempts at nature conservation in Australia.
An application for the land was applied for by a local body member under the then Land Act to protect the site from being demolished for building stone. The title was issued and in 1887 transferred to the Mayor, Councillors and Burgesses of the Borough of Stawell.
As part of the WJJWJ Peoples and Barengi Gadjin Land Council Traditional Owner Settlement Act 2010 Negotiations, the Native Title Unit of Aboriginal Justice, Department of Justice and Community Safety contacted Council to consider the WJJWJ Peoples' request for ownership of Sisters Rocks and the land be transferred to the BGLC as part of their TOS Act agreement.
As prescribed in the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006, if Council is to remain the owner, it has responsibilities for the repair or restoration of the site and/or a requirement to enter into a cultural heritage agreement for the protection maintenance or use of land containing an Aboriginal place.
As part of the decision Council has sought clarification on any impacts transferring the land would have on Section 3 of the proposed Western Highway Duplication (Ararat to Stawell).
The Department of Justice & Community Safety consulted with Major Roads Projects Victoria (MRPV) and responded to Council stating 'the Western Highway duplication runs adjacent to the Sisters Rocks site. A change of ownership for Sisters Rocks will not impact the ability of this project to proceed because the proposed duplication does not take in any of the Sisters Rocks land parcel'.
There is a current Planning Acquisition Overlay over a small portion of the Sisters Rocks land parcel that facilitates compulsory land acquisition to create a proposed new access road.
MRPV will engage in advance with the landowner of Sisters Rocks at that time of acquisition.
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