Melbourne chef Shannon Bennett has labelled residents opposed to his redevelopment of the historic Burnham Beeches property in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges “nutters” in a social media war of words.
Bennett, who runs Australia’s most expensive restaurant, Vue de monde, 55 floors up in Melbourne’s Rialto building, got into a slanging match with several people concerned about his plans for the 1930s mansion and estate at Sherbrooke, 40km from Melbourne.
Both sides of the argument claim they have been abused in public by their opponent, and while Bennett offered long replies on his Instagram account to those who accused him of not doing the right thing, many of their initial comments seem to have disappeared.
The chef, who recently sold a majority stake in his restaurant business to Singapore developers, bought Burnam Beeches in 2010 with Oriental Pacific Group’s Adam Garrisson, who has restored several historic Victorian buildings. They want to turn the 22-hectare site into “Australia’s first 6-star luxury retreat” with a 48-room hotel and spa, staff accommodation, 140-seat restaurant, plus a cafe, brewery, shop and working farm.
A previous proposal was rejected by the Yarra Ranges Council last amid staunch opposition from nearby residents. The proposal included plans for up to 80 villas, sold as investment properties, to help pay for a proposed $20 restoration of the historic building, sparking claims the rural site would be overdeveloped. The 2014 plan trebled the number of people on the site from 547 to 1700.
Last year Adam Garrisson claimed council made a mistake and the plan was for 68 villas, and they would be hotel accommodation rather than a residential development, but the proposal was rejected.
The amended proposal is currently on public exhibition and the council is seeking feedback until November 22.
The council’s economic development director, Ali Wastie, says the development could bring a variety of economic benefits by local boosting tourism and providing jobs.
“The Norris Building is a significant example of an Art Deco mansion in Australia. It is currently in a dilapidated condition and in need of repair. It would be wonderful to see this heritage restored,” she said.
The Norris building is named after its architect, Harry Norris, who designed the property in the late 1920s for Alfred Nicholas, who made his fortune selling aspirin in Australia, creating the Aspro brand. Nicholas died there in 1937, four years after the three-storey mansion in the “Art Deco streamline moderne” style was completed.
The property has been derelict for three decades. Two years ago Bennett converted one of the farmhouse buildings, the former piggery, into the 188-seat Piggery cafe and bakery.
But the long and fraught approval process appears to have taken its toll on the award-winning chef, who while taking a Melbourne publication to task on Instagram for inaccurate reporting, wrote “we already have several nutters in the hills causing enough trouble with lies and manipulation”.
While Bennett has plenty of support, with one person saying on his Instagram comments that: “there are heaps of nutters in the hills but as a long time hills resident I can assure you there are plenty who are thrilled with what you’re doing at Burnham Beeches”, it would appear others took a different view in now-deleted comments.
Bennett did not hold back in responding to one, saying “there is only about 60 of you amongst 1200 plus amazing supportive neighbours and residents”.
The chef said he and his team “will no longer put up with the heckling, threats, intimidation and lies… You don’t own the Dandenongs. Get over your own entitlement”.
To another he said he’d had “8 years of listening and being told how to restore the site. Presented to you and nutter buddies. All the sensible and balanced people now support Burnham Beeches”.
Bennett’s dressing down concluded with “No more interaction nor bipartisan talk from me. I just want to thank the thousands that support our vision”.
But he didn’t stop there, telling another: “you just don’t get it. 6 years of manipulation and entitlement. I assume you attended the same council meetings where I and my partner were heckled, threatened and belittled?… You are a nutter just a modern day one with a distorted reality and an unfair sense of entitlement. What you call due process is what I call stalling.”
The residents held their ground, with one claiming he was verbally attacked and screamed at by Bennett at a council meeting.
“You may not remember me but I remember my first encounter with you. I’m the person you were yelling at while one of your children looked on,” they wrote.
Another said when the villa plans emerged last year, it was “a big shock to many”.
Local artist Eliza Phillips wrote: “Nutters are we?? Great way to get the community on board @chefbennett23 You HAD most of our support until you tried to bypass council and verbally abuse anyone who thinks that you should be subject to the same planning laws as everyone else.”
The chef decided to stop engaging with his tormentors at that point. Business Insider attempted several times this week to contact Bennett for comment but has not responded.
Bennett is a brand ambassador for Miele, Audi and Nespresso.
Meanwhile Bennett and Garrisson have launched an online petition appealing to Victorian planning minister Richard Wynne to back the development.
“We are dedicated and committed to sustainable practices on the property, including organic practices and recycling of waste,” they say on the petition.
“Also of importance is education – we will also have a small facility for teaching organics, sustainability and environmental matters.”
They say their amended proposal features just a 300-square-metre footprint of new buildings.
More than 1900 people of a 2500 target have signed the petition so far.
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