HAHNDORF: A slow annihilation of Australia’s first settlement planned specifically for non-British immigrants.

By Anni Luur Fox - Chairperson, Hahndorf Branch, National Trust of SA - September 2011

Christian Jaensch House

You may well ask members of our Branch, and many non-members do after gazing in disbelief at the Christian Jaensch House at 84 Main Street, ‘How can this possibly happen to a State Heritage listed building in the Hahndorf Conservation Area?’  In September 2011, the façade of this 1840’s fachwerk house mutated into a type of 1950’s beach shack with its verandah enclosed and mesh protecting a huge refrigerator.  ‘Who did this? Don’t they know this is a unique marker of our pioneer era?’

My short answer is: political apathy or confusion in local government about what the aims to ‘conserve and enhance’ in the development plan might mean in practice. -  There needs to be public debate about this issue.  The outcome of a ten month planning process has sent the wrong message to residents, traders and visitors to this place known world-wide.

My long answer is based on Branch experience of planning processes. - Planners are employed to assess development applications and advise applicants and elected councillors about compliance issues.  While many of us assume councillors will vote to uphold the principles of development control in the development plan, we know from experience that some councillors vote according to their own personal opinions governed by whatever ‘cultural baggage’ they happen to carry.  If the majority of councillors have little respect for the value of historical sites to a region’s economy or identity, the results of their decisions make a mockery of development plans supposedly protecting sites such as the Christian Jaensch House.  The historic streetscape is degraded, the integrity of the building is compromised and an official precedent is set.

A similar situation sent our Branch on its very first legal adventure to Planning Appeal in 1977 which became a catalyst for the formulation of Hahndorf’s first Supplementary Development Plan at the behest of Premier Dunstan and Planning Minister Hopgood.  We had hoped that such a plan would help councillors exercising their right to vote to take on responsibility for their votes’ consequences to a place of national significance.

Local government tends to avoid the spectre of ‘historical information overload’ by relying on the SA Heritage Branch system of heritage advisers.  They are assumed to be knowledgeable about a site’s architecture as well as historical significance and how to refrain from obscuring it while managing changes required by 21st Century needs.  In our experience most members of Council’s Development Assessment Panel (DAP) vote in favour of their advice even if research data shows it to be inadequate.  The Christian Jaensch House is a recent example of the paucity of cultural knowledge among decision-makers.  In practice, the majority vote at DAP in August 2011 ensured that this pioneer fachwerk building now resembles a 1950’s beach shack, even though we alerted Council to its rarity, importance to the streetscape and the Jaensch brothers’ vital role as guarantors for purchase of the Hahndorf site by the founding families.

St Michael's Lutheran Church

St Michael’s Lutheran Church Redevelopment: A previous rough lesson in managing change in the Hahndorf Conservation Area 2006-2007.

The St Michael’s site in Hahndorf founded in 1839, is the home of the oldest continuing Lutheran congregation in Australia.  In 2006 the Hahndorf National Trust Branch was quietly called on for help by some members of the congregation disturbed about possible desecration of the remains of their cemetery in the oldest hallowed ground east of Mount Lofty.  They were also anxious about the prospect of carrying the financial burden of building a large modern extension to the church which had been erected in 1858 around the original wattle and daub church of 1840.

Planned to seat 493 people the new extension would require removal of the remaining headstones of the town’s pioneers including Christian Jaensch’s memorial bearing scripts and symbols from a distant European past.  A number of church members could still point to where their ancestor’s graves had been before 1959 when most of the graves had been bulldozed to increase carparking in time for the 120th anniversary.  The values of younger members were at extreme odds with a group of visionaries who had already paid off much of the cost of an alternative site where a more commodious church could be erected and thus relieve the bottleneck of traffic and parking at St Michael’s.

By June 2007 the congregation had voted in favour of building the new extension over the top of the existing cemetery.  Church officials claimed the National Trust had agreed to this action.  Perhaps they confused us with the SA Heritage Branch.  We sent a letter to the Minister for the Environment with copies to Council and the church to alert them to national heritage significance of the site.  We soon received notification that Council had classified the proposed development as Category 3, open to public comment.

On 3 October 2007 while representing the Hahndorf National Trust Branch at the Council’s DAP I was surprised to learn that the number of seats in the proposed extension had been reduced from 493 to 238 to comply with the Australian Building Code ratio for the carpark.  The size of the development had not shrunk accordingly.  The ‘headstone area’ was to be compressed and only two trees removed.  Church officials claimed no-one was buried in this area.

Despite the engineer’s assessment that there was a shortfall of 35 parking spaces for 238 seats in the extension, DAP voted in favour of the development.  Removal of the cemetery could not result in compliance.  Our Branch sent a letter of complaint to the Minister for the Environment with copies to Council.

A snapshot of subsequent events -

18 Oct: Hahndorf National Trust Branch received Council notification that the development had received Provisional Approval in Principle.  We sent another letter to the Minister for the Environment, requesting intervention.

24 Oct: The heritage advisor rang to follow up on our letters to the Minister.

26 Oct: Council’s planning manager’s opinion was that he could not see any reason why Council would refuse development approval.  He suggested that the only way to save the cemetery was for the National Trust to go to Planning Appeal.  ‘Not this time!’ was my retort.

One of our members retired from many stellar years in the public service advised that when an error of judgement had been made, Council’s planning manager CAN recommend to elected councillors that they review their decision.  HE or SHE has to initiate it.  The Minister for the Environment does have the power to intervene but there is due process to go through.  Most are loathe to do so unless there is political advantage.

Our next letter to the Minister suggested that councillors had given approval on a wrong premise.  Aware that planners refer to the National Trust as a ‘defacto planning authority’ our Branch acknowledged that we have no authority.  We just conduct research and point out the facts, gratis.  We believed it was up to the persons responsible for the error to address this situation by reviewing Council’s approval.

14 Nov: St Michael’s application for development was withdrawn.

And so it transpired that the cemetery remained in situ but not without some belated media involvement.  The heritage advisor was a peace keeper and helped in our initiative to persuade St Michael’s to underpin and clean the headstones aided by a grant.  Dear old Max Altmann compiled a list of all the people known to be buried under the 1959 carpark we hope will be etched in stone some day.  Bronze plaques have a habit of being stolen these days.  The alternative church site was subdivided and sold to reduce the hefty mortgage required to erect the extension.

In 2011 St Michael’s Lutheran Congregation finally accepted listing of their church of 1858 by the SA Heritage Branch, an honour it has refused in the past due to distrust of government interference in their religious affairs.  It was the reason Hahndorf’s 54 founding families had left Prussia in 1838 and established a hufendorf village in the Australian bush.