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Byron Shire
June 4, 2023

Illegal clearing: developer fingered

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[author]Staff reporters[/author]

The illegal vegetation clearing in the Cudgen Nature Reserve – which was first brought to light by Echonetdaily has reached parliament, with a Greens MP pointing the finger at the developer who owns the adjacent land.

Upper House Greens MP Cate Faehrmann says suspicion has turned to the billionaire developer Bob Ell as the one responsible for excavating Blacks Creek and removing trees along its banks despite its protected status.

Describing it as ‘a shocking case’, she says if he’s guilty the property mogul should be hit with ‘the most severe penalty available’ to act as a serious deterrent.

Scathing attack

In a scathing attack, Ms Faehrmann said Mr Ell and his Leda group had a past history of illegal clearing and used intimidation and bullying tactics against people to get their way.

She said a dossier which Leda selectively leaked to the media recently named people it considered hurdles to their two satellite cities planned for Kings Forest and Cobaki Lakes.

‘It is understood that some people were targeted simply because they made submissions during the public consultation process,’ she said of the 74-page dossier containing claims of an anti-development conspiracy.

The document was given to councillors and government MPs last month following a public outcry over the extent of the clearing in the nature reserve adjoining the 1,000ha Kings Forest property, as was first reported by Echonetdaily.

The dossier contains sweeping allegations against Greens councillors, consultants, and senior council planning staff and government agencies, including National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), which has been involved in a prolonged investigation into the clearing since it was reported in July, but has remained tightlipped ever since, despite repeated requests from Echonetdaily for comment.

Ms Faehrmann told parliament an onsite inspection revealed that about 300 metres of vegetation had been cleared within the nature reserve on the banks of the creek, the creek dredged and soil spread across the cleared bank ‘in flagrant defiance of its status as a habitat for threatened species.

‘The vegetation removed also represents the loss of 0.4 hectares of what may be an endangered ecological community, swamp sclerophyll forest on coastal floodplains, which is protected under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995,’ she said.

Ms Faehrmann said it was apparent the work was undertaken by one or more machines entering from Leda’s Kings Forest property, which provided the obvious access to the adjoining reserve.

She said the former state government gave Leda approval for 4,000 homes to be built on the Kings Forest site, despite its high conservation value, strong community opposition and the developer’s history of illegal vegetation clearing.

Ms Faehrmann said in November 2007 the Gold Coast council obtained court orders directing companies owned by Mr Ell to revegetate major portions of a 100ha holding which was illegally cleared at Pimpama.

‘As well as the recorded conviction for illegal clearing, Bob Ell has a reputation for getting away with many other instances of native vegetation clearing and habitat destruction,’ she said.

‘Once discovered, with legal pressure and the assistance of compliant consultants, he has managed to obtain retrospective approvals under dubious excuses and loopholes.’

She cited an instance at Mr Ell’s Cobaki Lakes development where Leda cleared a stand of old-growth scribbly gum and then had a consultant state that the trees were dangerous to human health.

She said on another occasion he excavated a section of Blacks Creek on the Kings Forest site through a state wetland claiming it was merely ‘drain clearing’

On both occasions his claims and excuses were accepted by Tweed Shire Council.

Ms Faehrmann asked whether the recent clearing within the Cudgen Nature Reserve was a repeat offence.

‘Is it an example of a developer clearing vegetation from public land with the highest level of conservation protection confident that it can persuade and intimidate the authorities into bestowing retrospective approval should they be challenged?’ she said.

‘Is it another example of a developer treating the risk of litigation in Australia’s various land and environment courts as just another cost of doing business?

‘If it does transpire that this clearing is a repeat offence then the most severe penalty available should be imposed. It should be a penalty that acts as a serious deterrent for a wealthy developer and not one that can be written off as just another cost of doing business.’

Ms Faehrmann said parliament should consider changing the law to ensure that developers with a history of non-compliance with planning and environment laws are precluded from further development approvals.

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