Gates to open for basketball after court judgement
Calls for IBAC investigation into 2004 sale of council land
Updated: Thursday, August 10, 2023
AN end is in sight to a 10-year saga over public access to a basketball court in Brunswick.
The Victorian Supreme Court has ruled that the Dar-Alawda (Wendel Street) Community Centre must return ownership of Montfort Park in Wendel Street to Merri-bek City Council after preventing public use of the basketball court in breach of conditions when it acquired the land from the council in 2004.
The decision will result in the council re-purchasing the land from the community organisation for almost $500,000 more than it sold it for in 2004.
The council, then known as the City of Moreland, commenced action to buy back the land in 2020.
Merri-bek South Ward Councillor Mark Riley, who has been campaigning for two decades for the council to regain ownership of the land, said he was pleased “an ongoing saga” was almost over.
“It should never have been sold in the first place and it was a disaster waiting to happen,” he said.
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Dar-Alawda, an Arabic-Australian community organisation whose president is a former Merri-bek councillor and Mayor, Anthony Helou, bought the land – known as Montfort Park – from the council at the corner of Wendel and Henkel streets for $100,000 in 2004. The land is adjacent to a former scout hall that Dar-Alawda has used as its base since 1986.
The purchase price was $430,000 below the full market value of the land at the time.
Dar-Alawda did not respond to requests by phone and email to comment for this story.
At the time of the purchase, the land was an undeveloped grassy block and the conditions of the discounted sale price included that Dar-Alawda would construct a basketball court that would be accessible for local residents. Breach of the conditions would entitle the council to buy back the land.
But when the basketball court was completed in 2012, it was surrounded by a sturdy three-metre metal fence. Residents could apply for an ‘associate membership’ to gain access to the basketball court, but by 2015 were complaining to the council that they were shut out of using the park. A sign supposed to provide information about how to get access to the park was obscured by a tree.
Subsequent mediation facilitated by the council failed to resolve the issues. Following a petition in March 2020 calling on the council to take back ownership of the park which was signed by 481 residents, the council issued Dar-Alawda with a notice of default and in December that year commenced action to repurchase the land for $579,500.
In response, Dar-Alawda took the matter to the Supreme Court, which heard the case over five days in May this year.
In a judgement issued on July 27, Justice Melinda Richards found that Dar-Alawda was in breach of its contract of sale by failing to allow residents to have access to the basketball courts.
She found that the council had acted properly and was entitled to repurchase the property.
Former Henkel Street resident Dave Bell, whose investigation into the 2004 land sale kicked off the campaign to return it to council ownership, said the matter should now be referred to the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC).
“I was angry when I learned about the circumstances surrounding the sale, especially as the conditions of it were breached, and the community locked out,” he said.
“It should never have been sold, and I believed then, as I do now, that this should be investigated by IBAC.
“The Supreme Court decision is vindication after 10 years of lobbying, campaigning and mediation. So many kids have grown up locked out of their local park in that time. It will be a great day when the gates are finally unlocked.”
A local resident, who was walking his dog when Brunswick Voice visited the site this week, said the fence was confronting and he had never seen the basketball court being used.
He said improvements, including painting the fence and laying a rubber court surface, had been made only this year.
Cr Riley said Dar-Alawda should have accepted a generous earlier offer from the council to settle rather than drag the matter through the courts, and he hoped the organisation would relocate away from Brunswick.
“I’m not interested in considering that group in our city in the near future,” he said.
“At this stage I would have to be really convinced they had good intentions after the way they have treated us and treated the community.”
Merri-bek Mayor Angelica Panopoulos welcomed the court judgement.
“A whole generation of children in the neighbourhood have been denied access to this much-needed open space. The organisation has breached its contract with Council and destroyed its goodwill with the community,” she said.
“We’re thrilled that the Supreme Court has made the right decision to force the sale of land back to Council. We will immediately start the buy-back process, and later this year will ask the community for their input on how they want to access the revamped courts and building.
“This is a major win for residents, and I thank them for their patience. Montfort Park is finally back in the hands of the Merri-bek community. I want to extend my sincere gratitude to all residents who backed this campaign, especially those who gave evidence to the Supreme Court during trial.”
While Dar-Alawda did not comment for this story, in a social media post in May it claimed it was the victim of a “malicious campaign”.
Update: In further orders issued on Monday, August 7, Dar-Alawda is required to complete the transfer of ownership of the land back to the City of Merri-bek by 4pm on September 22.
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