A new front has opened up in the battle over plans to build the Sandy Beach North housing estate at Hearnes Lake near Coffs Harbour. Owners of the 50-hectare site, Elite Constructions NSW, have filed action in the Land and Environment Court against both the Coffs Harbour City Council and the Planning Minister, Anthony Roberts.
The action comes after a campaign by locals over the summer to halt the development. Most recently, this included making around eighty submissions responding to the company’s Development Application, raising objections and pointing how the company was in breach of conditions made in the 2010 Concept Approval.
Faced with this barrage of complaints and a lack of approval by government, the developer has not only filed a court appeal against a ‘Deemed Refusal’ of its DA, but has also lodged a new and expanded proposal. This would greatly increase the footprint of the development, adding an expected 100 houses in areas (Stages 5 and 6) that provide habitat to endangered wildlife.
To get around this issue, Elite proposes using a controversial method of ‘biodiversity offsets’. Since 2016 developers in NSW are given broad scope to create alternative habitats for endangered species, away from the development site, but the approach has drawn criticism from conservation groups and scientists, as it rarely succeeds.
Elite’s new proposal also includes a strip of high-value lots on the beachfront dunes in an area previously earmarked for inclusion in the Coffs Coast Regional Park.
The battle over the flood-prone Hearnes Lake site, pictured above, (picture – Mitch East) has now gone on for more than a decade. Because of the sensitive nature of the wetland environment, the council originally determined that no more than 35 houses should be built in the catchment area. This was overridden in 2010 when former Planning Minister, Tony Kelly, signed a Concept Approval for more than 200 houses, under the then Part 3A Major Projects legislation.
Spokesman for the Sandy Beach Action Group (Sandbag), Dr Peter Quiddington, describes the Hearnes Lake proposal as a ‘zombie’ project that ‘should have been buried years ago’.
‘We must remember this is a plan to build houses on top of fill in a sensitive wetland area that is subject to flooding. It was approved by a Minister who has since been named as corrupt by ICAC, under flawed legislation that overrode local planning laws, and which has since been repealed. It is only in the state of NSW that such a poorly conceived scheme could survive.’
In recent months Sandbag convened an expert committee which uncovered evidence that local and state planning staff had used a series of tricks to move the project forward, including the use of ‘workarounds, loopholes and fudged facts’.
Critical changes to the proposal had been quietly ushered through the system without public consultation or independent scrutiny, going against Council’s public stance on the proposal.
The committee documented illegal clearing at the site, major breaches of the proposal’s original Concept Approval, including a complete disregard for public consultation.
Moreover, it found the Department of Planning and Environment had failed to carry out any compliance. In fact, the proponent had been given special treatment, by way of a two-year extension on the Concept Approval.
The working group’s findings were contained in a submission to the Coffs Harbour City Council in March, responding to Elite’s DA. It is understood passage of the DA was subsequently put on hold.
The Sandbag committee also discovered that DPE staff had carried out a whitewash in order to push the proposal forward, by giving the false impression that the public had been consulted. One trick used was to put the details of the two-year-extension application on the departmental website, and determined it to be ‘minor’ change, so that local residents were not informed.
Later, the DPE staff then claimed that the public had ‘not objected’ to the extension. Council staff were complicit in this whitewash by not alerting local residents to the extension. It also responded in vague and ambiguous terms, undermining the Council’s very public opposition to the proposal. (See attached link to Council’s response)
“What makes this episode so outrageous is that the council spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ money fighting this proposal in the courts. Yet, here was an opportunity to have the proposal stopped in its tracks, simply by the stroke of a pen,” according to Dr Quiddington.
The Council needed only to object, in unambiguous terms, and inform residents, who would have also made their objections loud and clear.
“Why council staff failed to vigorously object to the extension defies logic. It suggests that there is a systematic effort, within the bureaucracy, to avoid having the proposal examined independently,” he said.
Now we have the opportunity for independent judicial review, we need to see that the Council and the State Government properly defend the public interest in this matter, he said.
This is a Press Release from the Sandy Beach Action Group, 9 May 2018.