MORE than 8000 people had signed a petition by last weekend to stop an interactive walk-though Harry Potter event at The Briars wildlife sanctuary, Mount Martha.
Residents, visitors and wildlife advocates fear Mornington Peninsula Shire Council’s decision to allow Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Experience in a wildlife sanctuary will harm animals and the environment.
Up to 3000 visitors are predicted to attend the event nightly during April and May.
The petition started by Save Our Briars Sanctuary (SOBS) urges council to move the event away from the wildlife sanctuary.
Thousands of tickets have already been sold and late last week council was “confident that the event will not harm wildlife”.
The mayor Simon Brooks said the event would leave “plenty of undisturbed natural habitat space for animals” in the 90 hectare sanctuary.
“Our conservation staff has worked closely with experts to understand and minimise any potential impacts to wildlife and vegetation,” he said.
The show will include props, lights and sound effects throughout the 60 to 90-minute walk.
It is understood the contract for the event includes a penalty clause, making it potentially costly for the shire to move the location.
Brooks said an ecological consultant had been engaged to try to ensure minimal environmental impact.
The council shared the community’s love for wildlife and was committed to respecting and maintaining the health of wildlife and vegetation at The Briars.
Before the event was approved, a risk assessment “with experts” had included an evaluation of potential impacts to The Briars environment.
“We have placed very strict requirements on the event organisers for the management of any potential impacts on wildlife,” Brooks said.
These measures included using mostly existing paths in the sanctuary, prohibiting pedestrian access off the paths, “low” sound levels, planting at least 1000 trees after the event, and timed tickets.
“Events such as this provide an important boost for our local businesses through spending at local shops, restaurants and cafes. This event will showcase our region, inspiring visitors to stay for a few days in what is generally a quiet time for our tourism sector,” Brooks said.
The council estimated the flow-on economic benefits to the region to be $27 to $35 million.
Wildlife carer Brenda Marmion, of Rye, said the event would panic and stress wildlife and destroy habitat.
“It’s just in the wrong place for an event like this,” she said.
Frankston wildlife carer Michelle Thomas is concerned about the light show’s impact on wildlife, with visitors promised the opportunity to meet “magical creatures and cast spells” that will light up the dark woods.
Mornington resident and member of the Save Our Briars Sanctuary group Louise Page said opposition to the event’s location was growing.
“We know of people who bought tickets without understanding the impact on the environment, now they don’t want to go,” she said.
“Of all the places to hold this event, why choose a wildlife sanctuary that has always been about protecting animals.”
Page said The Briars was the peninsula’s only fenced sanctuary and included significant and fragile ecosystems.
“Our local animals should feel safe here, without human interference,” she said.
“Contrary to what the council say, we have mapped out the path the event takes and it goes right through the middle and through a significant part of the sanctuary.
“We know that the artificial noise and lighting, and the human disturbance of the kind expected during the event will have an impact on owls, even if the event does not occur in close proximity to their roosting sites.”
Details about the event were heard at a closed meeting, with councillors being asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Nine of the shire’s 11 councillors are believed to have signed the agreement. Crs David Gill and Anthony Marsh refused.
“I don’t think councillors should ever be asked to enter into individual legal agreements with third parties in that capacity,” Marsh said.
Marsh, the shire’s inaugural “small business champion”, said he had mixed feelings about the event, but hoped it was “appropriately planned and managed so that we get maximum benefit … with negligible lasting impact”.
Marsh and Gill’s refusal to sign a confidentiality clause meant that they were frozen out of the ongoing negotiations with the promoters of the Potter performances.
Gill said his refusal to sign was about transparency.
“We were being asked to sign away our rights to talk to the public about the contract negotiations. Whenever an international company says something should be confidential, I’m against it,” he said.
“The officers brought this to us totally without notice, which meant responsibility [for any consequences] was transferred from them to us if we voted on it.
“An agreement not to divulge information is something to be avoided like the plague.”
Gill said he would only sign a confidentiality agreement if required under the Local Government Act.
He said councillors who signed the document continued to be provided with information and the deal eventually struck with the promoters “that will make a lot of money for the shire”.
He said the council would be “liable if we try to change the site – we’ve signed a contract”.
The same event was held in Brussels last year, where protesters demanded it be moved from Groenenberg Castle due to environmental concerns.
A spokeswoman for Warner Brothers said the majority of the woodlands at The Briars would remain untouched.
Promotional material for the outdoor light trail, inspired by the iconic Forbidden Forest, will “have you reliving some of your favourite moments as you explore after dark the sounds, lights, and special effects that bring the wizarding world to life”.
With Keith Platt