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Sir Terence O'Rort
3 August, 2010  
Lord Eldon's family tree

The tree of man … Ancient fight over fig tree on Eldons’ estate not over yet … Further appeals planned to get unimproved land value of Ascot spread reduced to almost zero … Stellar court room showing by Eldon patriarch … Sir Terence O’Rort reports

imageThe Brisbane Sunday Mail (Aug 1) published the story of an heroic 12-year struggle by the parents of Lord Eldon (trading as Anthony J.H. Morris QC).

Grahame Oriel Morris (“Gom” to his friends) and Roma Janice Morris live in refined splendour at Windermere Road, Ascot, one of the best neighborhoods in Brisbane.

Eldon Senior was formerly a partner in the Brisbane legal shop Fees Ruthless, now part of the Allens’ law chain.

We know this because Gom has written an article entitled Feez Ruthning & Co: The First 100 Years and this is featured on Lord Eldon web-site Lex Scripta.

Readers of Justinian from time to time have been moved by His Lordship’s well garnished prose and it is not too difficult to see from where his style comes.

One of his peculiar literary flourishes is to refer to himself in the third person.

Witness Eldon Snr at work:

“From 1970, the firm had a rule that partners must retire by age 65. Morris retired in 1994 (but remained as a consultant until 1996, his 65th birthday). No other partner has yet reached the mandatory retiring age.”

The story starts in 1998 when the Valuer General issued a valuation of $700,000 for the Eldon family seat.

Roma Morris is the daughter of the original owner, L.V. Bressow. After his death in 1998 Roma carried on the appeal in her own name.

She alleged that the ancestral home was only worth a mere $500,000 because, among other things, the value was adversely affected by the presence of a large fig tree.

imageIt is a White Fig (Ficus Virens-Sublanceolata), which in 1998 was 25 metres high, had a canopy width of 21 metres and a trunk of three metres at breast height.

Pic: Roma Morris, up the tree

Unfortunately, the tree was described as in good health, with excellent vigour.

According to Brisbane City Council’s arboreal bureaucrats this specimen was, “an important cultural relic of the grand estates which formerly occurred in this area”.

Plod from the BCC issued a Vegetation Protection Order that effectively prevented the Eldons from interfering with the ficus in any way including, but not limited to, ripping it out with a D9 dozer.

The Eldons argued that the value of the property had been adversely affected because the fig tree blocked the breeze and attracted bats in the fruiting season.

This gave rise to, “a constant nuisance from noise, smells and droppings”.

A Land Court beak gave the senior Eldons a reduction of $50,000 because of the bat-poo problems.

See costs decision.

Between 1998 and 2001 the BCC knocked-off seven percent of the property’s valuation for each of those years.

The effect on the rates payable on the property must have been quite pleasing.

A further outrage occurred in 2001 when the VG had the temerity to value the Eldon pile at $1.035 million.

After an objection the VG gave the property owner a 10 percent reduction, but this was not good enough as the elderly Eldons were after a 15 percent reduction in the value, to $910,000.

A further appeal to the Land Court was commenced.

This time Gom Morris was on the job and gave evidence including tendering what the court described as “a substantial lump of root with a diameter of 90mm”.

According to Gom the fig tree roots had penetrated and on occasions had blocked the sewerage drain.

As K-Rudd would say, “fair shake of the sauce bottle”. Any right thinking person can understand that bat droppings pale into insignificance when up against blocked sewers.

There was more evidence about the bats:

“The tree is visited annually, when it is in fruit, by large numbers of fructiferous bats with adverse consequences, which were graphically described by Mr Walsh, as to noise and droppings.”

Again there was a triumph, with the presiding member handing out a 12 percent reduction in the valuation of the rambling estate on account of the presence of the root system and the smelly batty invaders.

The valuation was reduced to $960,000.

However, bureaucrats never seem to learn and in 2006 the VG valued the Eldon residence at $1.3 million and the following year at $1.4 million.

This really was too much for the Morrises and two further appeals to the Land Court were lodged.

Gom himself climbed into the witness box and the Land Court member, P.A, Smith, accepted all of his evidence. He gushed:

“As indicated, the appellant relied upon evidence given by her husband, Mr Morris. Mr Morris gave his evidence clearly and articulately. I note that Mr Morris is a retired solicitor who, during his life time, has made a significant contribution to the legal profession in this state.

This is relevant because it is abundantly clear that Mr Morris understands, perhaps better than most witnesses, his obligations in providing evidence to the court. I was impressed by Mr Morris’ evidence and accept in its totality the truthfulness of all of his evidence before the court.”

Again Gom produced more tree roots that had what was described as “a white exudate coming from them”.

He told the court that he found them from “diggings occurring in Dennison Street outside of his property”.

The Eldons’ cause was assisted by the BCC plod who could not tell the difference between the circumference and the diameter of the tree.

The council gave evidence that the fig tree had a diameter of 12 metres, or four times the size claimed by the appellant.

The Land Court member summed things up nicely:

“In my view, Mr Fletcher was the only person present in court who failed to see the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’.

One does not need to be an expert, nor to have a degree in mathematics, to accept that the diameter of the tree cannot be, and is not, 12m, but is more likely of a diameter of approximately 3.5m, and that the measurement which Mr Fletcher has provided equates, at least roughly or perhaps exactly, to the circumference of the tree and not the diameter.

The simple mathematical equation of 2Πr shows the folly in Mr Fletcher’s evidence, which tragically, as indicated, was evident to all present in the hearing room except for Mr Fletcher.”

The Eldons hit the jackpot with the court awarding them a discount of 25 percent for the 2006 and 2007 years – giving a rateable value of $1.24 million for 2006 and $1.31 million for 2007.

They managed to get their rates’ bill down to a piddling $8,000 a year.

But it ain’t over yet. The senior Eldons are planning another trip to the courts to try and get the unimproved value of their 2,000 square metre spread down to almost nothing.

Gom said that because of the fig, “theoretcially [the land] has no value”.

The Sunday Bugle reported Eldon Snr railing against the Brisbane City Council bureaucrat who had issued the VPO in the first place:

“They said, ‘You’re going to have it, whether you like it or not.’ It was a self-propelled council officer, a busybody’...

It [the vegetation protection order] freezes millions of dollars worth of land. You can’t do anything with two-thirds of this land.

When you want to go and preserve other people’s property you have to bear the consequences.”

According to the paper Senior Eldon is prepared to take the matter to the High Court, if necessary.

imageRemind you of anything?

Here’s Eldon Jnr (snap), also in railing mode. In a speech to medical students at James Cook University in 2005 (conveniently located for posterity on His Lordship’s website) he took on the bureaucrats of Queensland Health:

“Of course, Queensland Health will tell you that all these bureaucrats make a really important contribution to the provision of healthcare services in this state.

I guess it would be churlish to ask what they were all doing when Berg was prescribing mind-altering substances to patients here in Townsville, and (as it is alleged) engaging in a bit of kiddie-fiddling on the side.

I guess it would be equally churlish to question what contribution these legions of bureaucrats made whilst Jayant Patel was making his own contribution to the problem of over-crowded waiting lists in Bundaberg, by removing patients from the list – permanently.”

As we say in Brisvegas, the bat shit does not fall far from the fig tree.

Sir Terence O’Rort reporting