Robin Tennant-Wood asks: What’s the legal situation?
In late September the Braidwood district has been hit by a spate of vandalism. A number of letterboxes in Ryrie St were destroyed in one night, followed shortly by the exterior of the BCS gym being splashed with paint.
Both these incidents incur, if the culprit is caught, legal penalties. The destruction of private property, in the case of the letterboxes, and the destruction of public (government) property in the case of the school gym, both fall under the ‘malicious damage’ law, which includes graffiti, vandalism and property damage and which can incur a maximum penalty of up to six years imprisonment.
A third incident of public property damage, which occurred over the weekend of 23-24 September, places a question mark over what we regard as ‘property’ and what we regard as ‘damage’.
On Saturday 23 September, several of the large and old pine trees in the cemetery at Gundillion were felled, then bulldozed into piles and burnt. The burning took place over the entire weekend, with bulldozers periodically moving around over the cemetery itself.
The rings on one of the stumps that was not burnt reveals the tree to have been between 50 and 60 years old Pinus elliottii (slash pines). Several metres of surrounding eucalypt and tea tree bush was also burnt and the fence at the front cut away to allow access for the bulldozers.
The destruction is believed to have been a self-appointed mission by a small number of men from the region to remove tree roots from some headstones. This event has left many others with connection to the cemetery very upset.
Council not informed, question about trees as public property
QPRC confirmed that they knew nothing of the tree removal and that approval was neither sought nor given for the destruction to be carried out. While the cemetery has been previously listed on the Heritage List for (the former) Palerang Council, it is not listed under the current LEP. [ A tree preservation ordinance, as previously existed in Yarrowlumla Shire for example and related to the age and height of trees in general, was dropped by the former Palerang council].
According to the New South Wales Department of Environment and Heritage, the cemetery is still listed as a local heritage site at state level.
The vandalism raises the very grey area of ‘malicious damage’. Letterboxes and school gyms are clearly property. There is a definite claim of ownership and damage to them is a violation of that claim. While the cemetery is officially council property, however, there is a lack of clarity over the status of trees.
For example, for a tree to be protected under heritage legislation, it must be included in the description of the listing, for example, “Cottage and pine tree.”
A spokesperson for QPRC said that while council was investigating the matter of the tree felling, the only offence that was committed was the removal of trees on council property without consent. ‘Malicious damage’? Apparently not.
What about environmental damage?
It is bird nesting season. The trees in question were habitat to yellow-tail black cockatoos, kookaburras, magpies and crimson rosellas. Unfortunately they have no legal standing.
They are subject to moral, rather than legal, decisions and their nests and this year’s generation of young are apparently just ‘collateral damage’.
This also raises the point that if a member of the public wished to remove pines from any of the parks, gardens or recreation areas in the shire, they would be guilty only of removing trees without consent. Not of vandalism.
Letterboxes can be replaced. Paint can be removed from walls. It took over 60 years for those pines to grow and less than a day to reduce them to smouldering piles.