Media and Communications Officer, Erin Meeking, spoke with Rigby Cooke’s Megan Schroor to discuss her career, the practice, and her advice for those seeking to commence a career in planning and environment.
Megan Schroor is a Senior Associate in Rigby Cooke’s Planning and Environment team, with more than twelve years’ experience in a wide range of planning and environmental law issues affecting development across Victoria. Last year, for her work in the practice, Megan was recognised in Doyle’s Guide as one of eight ‘Rising Stars’ practising in Planning and Environment law in Victoria. Megan has acted for developers, private land owners, objectors and government clients in proceedings at VCAT and at panel hearings, and has extensive experience in the planning, environmental and road access issues associated with freeway service centres and petrol stations.
We’d love to know a little more about you, could you tell us a little about your career and your role at Rigby Cooke Lawyers?
I come from an art background. I majored in visual arts at University and then worked in art galleries for a few years before returning to University to study law. After graduating, I began my career as an articled clerk at Clayton Utz. We did three rotations during our Articles and Planning and Environment was the last team I rotated through. So, Planning and Environment law was very new to me… but fascinating!
Since joining the Planning and Environment team at Rigby Cooke Lawyers in 2011, I have worked on a range of planning and environment matters involving: residential, commercial and mixed-use development proposals; quarry and landfill proposals; freeway service centre and petrol station proposals; rural and greenfield subdivisions; restrictive covenant removals and variations; agricultural/industrial land use proposals; Environmental Effects Statements for major infrastructure projects such as the Melbourne Metro Rail Project; prosecutions and enforcement actions relating to various matters including unlawful removal of native vegetation and air pollution; and investigations into breaches of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1988.
What does it mean to work in planning and environmental law in your firm?
As a Planning and Environment lawyer at Rigby Cooke, you find yourself involved in a truly diverse variety of matters. Our clients range from experienced developers of multi-storey apartment buildings in inner-Melbourne to individual land owners seeking advice on how to develop their land and negotiate their way around a complex and multi-layered regulatory system. Our clients include secondary and tertiary educational institutions, farmers, statutory authorities, hospitality industry operators, caravan park operators, mattress recyclers and waste management/landfill operators. We provide advice on environmental and planning obligations, represent clients at VCAT and in panel and advisory committee hearings and assist with negotiating and drafting agreements.
What initially drew you to a career in law, and to environmental law in particular?
I went back to University after completing an Arts degree because I wanted a job I would find more intellectually stimulating. I chose Planning and Environment law (as opposed to Banking & Finance, Mergers & Acquisition, Insolvency etc.) because I found it easy to relate to and because it gave me an opportunity to be involved in processes which would lead to changes in my immediate physical environment (at a local, State or national level).
What is the most rewarding aspect of your position and what has been your own personal highlight of your career?
There have been many highlights in my career so far, but some that come to mind include:
• helping some residents in rural Victoria successfully take enforcement action against a cattle feedlot operation which was causing serious air pollution (overwhelming odour, dust and insect infestation) in and around their home;
• assisting the Department of Health and Human Services and Melbourne Health to reduce the height of a proposed residential tower opposite the Royal Melbourne Hospital which threatened the ongoing safe operation of the emergency services helipad; and
• advising a client in relation to environmental conditions on a planning permit which required him to construct a series of wetland ponds on the perimeter of his commercial development. The purpose of the ponds (which added some significant cost to the development) was to encourage breeding of the Growling Grass Frog, an endangered species in the vicinity of the site. Two years after the development was completed, he sent me a jubilant text message which said: “They’ve found tadpoles in our frog ponds!”
What do you think is the greatest challenge for the practice of environmental law?
Our understanding of the environmental impact of what we do and how we live is constantly evolving. A significant and ongoing challenge for the practice of environmental law is how to continue to respond in a measured and effective way to environmental issues and threats as they are identified.
Have you faced any negativity for choosing to pursue an environmentally focussed career?
Occasionally, but not often, people are suspicious of what we do because many of our clients are developers and they assume that developers have less concern for the surrounding environment. In my experience, our developer clients are genuinely concerned about meeting their obligations and ensuring their developments have a positive environmental outcome, so I find this rewarding rather than challenging.
Noting your experience with environmental and road access issues associated with freeway service centres and petrol stations, what draws you to this area and what do you find such cases involve?
It is really by chance that I started working on these types of developments, but freeway service centres are a classic example of what I enjoy about Planning and Environment law. I have young children and we often stop at freeway service centres when we are on holiday so the kids can play and we can stretch our legs. Understanding the road safety benefits of providing an opportunity for drivers to stop and take a break, and knowing how difficult it is to obtain a planning permit to use and develop land with a freeway service centre, has given me a fresh perspective on what many people might dismiss as “just another petrol station”.
The strict parameters within which such developments are established (and must operate) is also something many people may not appreciate. And, because freeway service centres are generally established in rural and semi-rural areas, environmental issues are often quite difficult to navigate. Environmental obligations such as planting of native vegetation and creation habitat for threatened species can be onerous and often add substantially to the cost of development.
What advice would you give for those seeking to pursue a career in the field of planning and environmental law?
Take any opportunities you can find for work experience in a P&E team or with a P&E barrister.
Choose a planning and/or environmental law subject as an elective, if it’s on offer at your university. This is certainly not essential, but it will give you a sense of the sort of work you will be doing when you practise in the area.
Think about where your interest in environmental law lies – are you more interested in land and groundwater contamination? Greenhouse gas emissions and mining? Impacts on amenity from air pollution and noise? Biodiversity, native vegetation or the built environment? Different firms and different practice groups specialise in different areas, so deciding what you’re interested in can help you decide who to target.
If there are any particular issues you are interested in, read some relevant Tribunal decisions on Austlii – this will give you a real flavour for how a case is argued, what points of law might arise and what sort of evidence might be led in support of (or in opposition to) a proposal.
What skills and attributes do you think are necessary for success as an environmental lawyer?
A good environmental lawyer must have the skills any good lawyer needs, such as an ability to think critically and problem solve, to think strategically and commercially but with good attention to detail, strong writing skills and an ability to relate well to people (not only clients, but colleagues, consultants).
Good environmental lawyers should also be motivated to achieve good environmental outcomes, should be able to read plans and understand highly technical documents which are outside their immediate field of experience.
For more information, or to contact Megan Schroor please see http://www.rigbycooke.com.au/people/megan-schroor.