Developer heaven on hold, for now


Austinmer: A headland worth saving

Hi. Since I started writing on overdevelopment in NSW, I’ve been inundated with emails from readers detailing the hot developments in their seats, and the community protests to stop or modify them. We’re hoping to report on some of these early next year in the lead-up to the election, so send me your nominations!

Today, Tim Vollmer, a journalism student at Sydney’s University of Technology, reports on a controversial coastal development in Austinmer, south of Sydney near Wollongong. Wollongong voters spat the dummy at State and local Labor vandalism by recently electing a Green as their MP in Cunningham. It looks like they’re getting a lot of bang for their vote – at least until the election. Here’s Tim’s report.


Headlands Hotel – Austinmer

by Tim Vollmer

A group of locals have just delayed a controversial coastal development proposal in the latest environmental skirmish around Wollongong.

The past year has seen swinging council opinions and wholesale indecision on the 56 apartment, three-story complex, however Wollongong City Council finally made a stand by demanding a complete redesign of the structure during the December 16 council meeting.

Council recognised that the applicant, Canyork Pty Ltd, who had already begun proceedings in the Land and Environment Court, would likely continue this action, but community demands – and political pressure from both the state member and the Minister for Planning – appeared to win.

While the development itself seems minor in nature, it exemplifies a rebirth of community political involvement – and demonstrates the growing level of discontent with ALP representation on the issue.

While the land is zoned 6(c) tourism in the Local Environmental Plan (LEP), meaning no residential developments, the developers used Clause 38A to use the zoning from 50m away across the road: residential. The resulting development contained 24 residential units, and the potential for the 32 serviced apartments to be converted at a later time to residential.

And while this area is low density residential, the proposed residential was medium density, verging on high density, apartments.

Honorary Secretary of the Headlands Community Action Group (HCAG) Ian Rodden described the area as “one of the most scenic headlands in NSW”, adding that Austinmer, the neighbouring beach, won the Cleanest Beach in NSW award in March.

“We want a better design on such a critical coastal headland,” he said. “We didn’t want a complete refusal. We want a nice development on that site, but not what was proposed. The proposal was 3.5 times the volume of existing building.”

Residents are also relieved that the council didn’t set a precedent by allowing something that violates the Coastal Councils guidelines.

Resident Steve Allan expressed community concerns arising from the charettes (public meetings) that the developers refused to rectify:

* that the development’s footprint and height should be the same as the existing structure (the proposal more than doubled these);

* that it protect the site’s history of use, specifically, the hotel which has been part of the area for 50 years.

However, the decision now rests with the Land and Environment Court (LEC). “We thought that if council did oppose it, PlanningNSW (the State planning department) and the Coastal Council (a State government advisory body) might hold enough weight in the Land and Environment Court to stop it,” Allan said.

Pressure on council came from State MP for Keira David Campbell, with all local councillors received a letter requesting they reject the development application.

“David Campbell had lobbied the councillors. Obviously after the Greens win in Cunningham he didn’t wish to lose green support,” said Rodden.

The Minister for Planning, Andrew Refshauge, is also believed to have requested council to reject the proposal.

The spokesperson for Minister for Planning, Dan Blyde said: “It is quite proper and normal for a Minister, if he has concerns about an issue, to speak to the council itself and indicate his concerns. The minister has expressed his concerns that any developments in the coastal zone must be appropriate.”

However, while the minister can “call in” any development he deems inappropriate, he ;left it instead to the councillors – risking the Development Applications’s (DA’s) approval – perhaps to deflect any blame from either side.

The major concern for Councillor Christian was the size and bulk of the development. “The community is sick of the development,” she said. “Members of the community are increasingly becoming activists. They are using email and the internet to organise.”

Council resolved to demand a complete redesign “in accordance with the advice of PlanningNSW”, whose demands closely mirrored those of community members: the bulk, height and footprint, as well as the sustainability of residential on this headland.

Interestingly, council also voted to change clause 38A in the WCC LEP which Canyork had used to propose the residential element. Clr Martin said that “Wollongong City Council has been discussing the closure of that clause for 3-4 years.”

PlanningNSW was far less willing to discuss the proposal, given the case is due to go before the LEC during February. However, an employee confirmed that PlanningNSW “have objected to the development. The building is to big and bulky; the footprint is too large; it is too high; and the scale overpowers the site.”

Paul Miller spoke to a community mediation meeting on behalf of Canyork Pty Ltd recently, and argued that Canyork had been willing to change the plans to appease the local residents, including the cutback of residential apartments to 30% of the development. However, given the current refusal to redesign the development in line with council demands, and their insistence on going through the LEC, their desire to abide by all demands appears minimal.

Any major redesign that results in a new DA will need to abide by the 1997 NSW Coastal Council Policy. The Coastal Council is a state advisory body regarding coastal development. The Coastal Policy states that “any developments on headlands already developed should be strictly limited to height and scale no greater than existing buildings and will require an environmental assessment, including an assessment of visual impact from adjoining beaches”.

However, this policy – binding in much of the state – lacks weight in Wollongong, because the Carr government excluded council areas from Newcastle to Shell Harbour from it.

Coastal Council Chair Professor Thom said that “had this Local Government Area been under the Coastal Policy when the Development Application came in, we could have taken a stronger position”.

“However, all I could do was inform Wollongong City Council and PlanningNSW that this is the policy and that they should work within the spirit of it.”

In June 2001 NSW Premier Bob Carr announced the Coastal Protection Package, which stated that Wollongong would now come under the Coastal Policy. This was long before the development proposal was placed with council – but the Policy won’t be binding until after February 7.

The protracted battle of the headland was the result the initial developer-friendly ALP decisions of 1997, this protracted battle has occurred, and the community may still result lose it to a development the community, council, and the state all oppose if the LEC backs the developer.

The insanity of excluding these councils from the environmental protection of the Policy is evident, especially in light of the much more publicised Sandon Point development. There a 20 stage development of more than 1200 dwellings threatens to destroy an area of Indigenous and European heritage, as well as coastal floodplains which house endangered species and rare migratory birds.

With that development being a key catalyst to the Greens’ Cunningham win, Local Greens Convenor Ian Miles is confident the Greens candidate for Keira, local resident Michael Sergent can win the seat.

“All major elements of the ALP have failed to represent the people of the area,” Miles said. “State government is where a lot of damage is being done to this area through overdevelopment, because Carr supports development.”

The Greens not only expect a similar vote to that which occurred in the Cunningham byelection, but they believe there is the opportunity to grab much more of the vote.

“We expect to get somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of the primary vote. We are a good chance of winning. It’s a very real chance,” he said.

David Campbell is beginning to feel the pinch, and while denying any fear of a Green win, several aggressive statements regarding “populist independents” and allegations that HCAG is being controlled by the Greens for political purposes show a level of tension in the electorate of Keira which could produce another Cunningham-style upset.

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