Many Developers make a mockery of the so-called rules.

Time to call a halt as manipulation becomes blatant.

Quietly, with no fanfare, on Friday the 24th of February 2023, the very last day before the government went into care-taker mode, the Coalition Government changed the State Environment Planning Policy for Forster-Tuncurry and then within a few short hours reversed it.  

The developer is the business arm of the NSW Government Landcom. This was done against the express recommendations of Midcoast Council and without any regard or mention of the at least 100 submissions made.   Why?

It allowed some 300 hectares of highly valuable endangered species habitat at North Tuncurry to be rezoned for urban development.  This includes habitat of 20 species that are part of the NSW ‘Save Our Species’ red flag’ targeted animals including the Eastern Pygmy Possum, the Brush-tailed Phascogale, the Green Turtle, the Pied Oystercatcher, the Koala and the Tuncurry Midge Orchid, which as the name suggests, occurs only in the Tuncurry region.  The rezoning approval required the then Minister for the Environment to consider a “strategic assessment” that “will remove the requirement to address biodiversity issues at the development application stage”. 

On paper the development looks good. 235 hectares are promised to be preserved and other biodiversity offsets are planned for the enormous nearly 20,000 biodiversity credits required for destroying such incredibly important threatened species habitat.  And the argument is, as always, that this will provide much needed housing and ‘progress’ for the area.

However, if you dig a little deeper, the rosiness quickly fades and reveals an underbelly of ugliness that speaks to why it was done in such undue haste and secrecy.

The proposed development sits on sand upon the Tuncurry Aquifer.  As such, increasing of impervious hard surfaces of roads and concrete will lead to massive increases in flood events that will impact on residents and on the hydrology generally, including the aquifer.  

There is no proposed drainage plan that will provide mitigation for this threat.

 There is no public or social housing included in the 2,100 proposed housing estate therefor disregarding Landcom’s supposed key role of providing affordable housing.

The ecological studies are remarkably impoverished with the most recent consisting of a 2- and 3-day period in the winter months immediately following the devastating ‘Black Summer’ fires of 2019-2020 when the ecologies were still in the very beginning of recovery.  Advice from (and to) Council’s staff that the area is a critically important habitat for far more species than identified at that time has been ignored.

The biodiversity offsets or credits proposed includes land that would never be subject to development anyway, which is the Council owned 380-400 hectares Nabiac Sands which form the second water supply for the region.  As such it falls within the classic ‘double-dipping’ of off-sets which is a recognised mockery and scandal of NSW government promised biodiversity protection across the state. (See NSW State’s Auditor-General Report on the Review of the Effectiveness of Biodiversity Offsets -30 August 2022).  

Other offsets held on site are highly questionable in that they are areas that are extremely vulnerable to storm and surge damage, or are long fingers which involve substantial ‘edge’ issue vulnerabilities such as water and chemical run-off, weed invasion (check around some of our roadways for examples of lantana, Asparagus fern, morning glory, bamboo etc etc) and domestic and feral pet predation.

Others involve acknowledged habitat destruction but with the promise of regeneration within a 5-year period.  That may not sound like much in human years, but for the vital pollinator of the Tuncurry Midge orchid, the tiny midge fly, that is several generations lost with the potential permanent loss of this very special insect and therefor the endangered orchid which depends upon it.

There is no clear stewardship planned for the onsite ‘preserved’ land with the suggestion that the local Golf-Course which will be upgraded in the plan will provide this management.  The question that immediately springs to mind is whether the Golf Course holds the necessary ecological professional credentials to protect such an incredibly important habitat for so many threatened and endangered species.

The minister behind the secretive and hasty rezoning is Anthony Roberts, the outgoing Minister for Planning and Homes.  This minister is apparently known for allegedly taking his advice from Urban Taskforce, the enormously powerful lobby group and registered ‘charity’ for developers and their financers who have actively worked to undermine the power of local Councils regarding planning and environmental protection.  In this role he wound back his predecessor’s Rob Stokes’ policies that were designed to protect people from the threats of inappropriate developments on flood plains which put them and their family homes at risk, and inappropriate developments that impacted on the increasingly threatened species habitat.  In this role he also allegedly met with powerful developers such as Lang Walker without notes taken and then made decisions fast-tracking development approvals on enormous Walker Inc land holdings that also impacted on koala habitat.  

The value of the said lands increased massively, and it may only be coincidental that his previous chief of staff, Rob Vellar, now works for Walker Inc. In past events he has been sanctioned for hosting ‘special lunches’ with other well-heeled developers.

The Independent Commission Against Corruption in 2010 has previously warned that giving Ministers wide discretion to approve projects that are contrary to local plans and do not conform to state strategic plans “creates a corruption risk and a community perception of a lack of appropriate boundaries” and the “perceptions of undue influence”.  Certainly, that perception seems relevant here.

North Tuncurry is only one of many developments and rezonings all up and down the NSW coast where highly lucrative profits are being made by developers and consultation with communities and local councils treated as a mockery.  Many of these developments are in highly bushfire and flood prone areas where property owners will struggle to get affordable insurance and which contain threatened ecological communities found nowhere else.  

Meanwhile NSW continues to face an extinction crisis, with the dubious record of being in the top two states for land clearing and habitat loss.  

We need an urgent review and hit pause on all developmental approvals that impact highly ecologically important land and risk already threatened species.  We need a state-wide review on where developments can occur that do not put people and their homes at risk. 

I would also suggest that we need an urgent senate enquiry into the decisions made by the previous Minister for Planning and Homes with a focus on the influence of big developers and their financers.  

Let’s hope this new government truly does consider the State of Our Environment and the increasing tragedy of inappropriate developments putting people, their communities and the environment at risk.   

Kym Kilpatrick

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