A Denmark farmer once hailed as an outback hero by former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer is locked in a bitter dispute with Planning Minister John Day on the eve of the State election.
Stephen Birkbeck said he had spent the past four years and $500,000 fighting for a dam on his farm because he gives a damn about farm succession, property rights and rural employment.
Mr Day has taken the unprecedented step of pursuing Mr Birkbeck and the Shire of Denmark through the State Administrative Appeals Tribunal over the dam on the family farm near Greens Pool on the south coast.
Farmers regard it as a test case that could open the floodgates for retrospective planning requirements on dams and have thrown their support behind Mr Birkbeck.
They are also angry that the bureaucratic nightmare continues for Mr Birkbeck six years after the dam was built and despite a recent pledge from Premier Colin Barnett to cut red tape holding back WA farmers.
It is not just any dam they are fighting over - it holds 109,000 cubic metres of water and is crucial to the development of a major irrigation project.
Downstream neighbours, including Denmark Chocolate Company operator Chris Grain, have raised safety concerns.
They are worried about what will happen if the dam fails.
Mr Grain said he had legitimate safety concerns that he hoped would be resolved by the SAAT hearing. The battle has taken its toll on Mr Birkbeck, who admits he has considered giving up the fight. That's no small admission from a man who has stared down acute myeloid leukaemia and fought back from the brink of financial ruin to become one of Australia's most acclaimed rural businessmen.
One Friday afternoon in 1990, Mr Birkbeck, who had two small children and a pregnant wife, was in an Albany bank that was refusing to cash a $70 cheque to pay for food to feed his family.
With his back to the financial wall, Mr Birkbeck realised something had to give. It was then that he founded Mt Romance and forged strong links with the lucrative cosmetics, perfume and fashion industry in France.
With Mt Romance came the sweet smell of success. Mr Birkbeck and the business won a series of awards and he is regarded as a pioneer of the export of high-value emu and sandalwood products.
Mr Birkbeck sold Mt Romance to Holistic Products Group in 2005. However, Holistic's plans to list it on the stock exchange came unstuck, and Mr Birkbeck, with Gandal Springwest, the investment vehicle of John Gandal, bought it back a short time later.
In 2008, TFS agreed to acquire the company for $28.6 million in a deal that involved TFS assuming Mt Romance's net debt of $17.6 million and paying $8.36 million in cash and shares to majority shareholder Gandal Springwest. Mr Birkbeck pocketed $2.64 million in cash and shares for his 24 per cent stake.
Mr Fischer dubbed Mr Birkbeck the Sultan of Sandalwood in his book Outback Heroes.
Mr Birkbeck is now chairman and biggest shareholder of listed Atlas South Sea Pearl, which has interests in WA, Tasmania and Indonesia.
His latest venture - growing intensive horticulture crops such as boronia, peppermint, fennel and mountain pepper on his Denmark farm to produce perfume - depends on water from the dam he built in 2007 after the shire told him it did not need planning approval. The site of the chocolate company was rezoned and the business established two years after Mr Birkbeck built his dam with the shire's blessing.
The shire has praised Mr Birkbeck for taking voluntary steps to ease the safety concerns of his neighbours over the past four years.
Mr Birkbeck, 52, said he had cut the capacity of the dam, increased the volume of the original overflow facility, built two additional overflow facilities and had the dam checked by teams of engineers.
The dam has coped with two extreme rain events over the past two year and had passed all engineering inspections.
Mr Birkbeck said there was nothing more he could do to reassure his neighbours and he was angry he had not been contacted by Mr Day or his staff.
"It is like someone building a house next to an airport and then asking for the airport to be closed," Mr Birkbeck said. "The dam was already there when they complained to the Minister."
Denmark shire president Ross Thornton warned that the case had major ramifications for farmers, with Mr Day to make a ruling based on the SAAT findings.
"If the Minister or Government determines that the Shire of Denmark needs to require the Birkbecks to retrospectively seek a development application for a farm dam constructed in 2007, then I wouldn't want to be a farmer in places like Manjimup or Pemberton where large dams exist in their hundreds without any planning approval," Mr Thornton said.
Mr Day defended his actions, saying he had received requests from several residents to investigate whether the shire had properly enforced its planning scheme.
"I think it is highly unlikely that every typical farm dam, of which there are thousands across WA, would need planning approval," Mr Day said.
Mr Birkbeck said his dream of creating jobs for local youth through a "great new industry" was fading as were the dreams of his three daughters who had grown up on farms.
"This farm is big enough to support three families and the kids don't want anything more than to live on this farm," he said.
"All we want to do is be left alone to generate a new industry for WA and allow our kids to take over from us as we approach old age."It is like someone building a house next to an airport and then asking for the airport to be closed." Denmark businessman Stephen Birkbeck
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