In a move reminiscent of another Queensland property developer, Bob Ell’s Leda Developments Pty Ltd has admitted to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) that some of its staff were responsible for land-clearing within the Cudgen Nature Reserve.
But the billionaire property player claims the workmen bulldozed trees and other vegetation along a 300-metre stretch of creek inside the protected area by accident.
In a letter leaked to Echonetdaily, NSW environment minister Robyn Parker this week shed light on the ongoing investigation into the unauthorised dredging of Blacks Creek and removal of vegetation along both banks.
Ms Parker reveals the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) only learnt about the environmental destruction in a remote part of the reserve after Leda dobbed itself in.
She says that Leda ‘had contacted the NPWS in July this year to report that accidental vegetation clearing had occurred on the adjoining nature reserve’ next to its Kings Forest development.
The agency launched an immediate investigation following an on-site meeting with Mr Ell’s right-hand man, Reg van Rij, to inspect the clearing.
Ms Parker says she is concerned by what occurred inside the reserve and both the NPWS and the Department of Public Works were conducting ‘extensive investigations’, which included ‘interviews with various people.’
Hosing down fears
The letter, which attempts to hose down fears that the five-month-old investigation may have stalled, says steps are being taken to rehabilitate the cleared area.
It’s the first official confirmation that Leda is the focus of investigations, although Upper House MP, Cate Faehrmann, told Parliament last month the company was under suspicion over what she described as a ‘shocking case’ of illegal vegetation clearing.
Former Tweed Greens councillor Henry James says the work would improve drainage in the southeast corner of Kings Forest and facilitate development in low-lying areas of the 1100-hectare estate.
He has called for a freeze on further approvals for the 5,000-lot development until the case is finalised, saying that assumptions about drainage and flooding and future maintenance of waterways are critical to the number of lots that can be developed.
Mr James says the letter indicates Leda may rely on a defence mounted by another Queensland developer, Godfrey Mantle, who escaped conviction after denying he ordered a contractor to chop and poison 1,200 trees on his Bilambil Heights estate. (The contractor received a $135,000 fine and 200 hours of community service.)
But he claims that if the government handles the case competently, the Mantle defence should not work because of provisions of the NPW Act that did not apply at Bilambil Heights.
He said aerial photographs by nearmap.com indicate the banks of the creek between the estate boundary and its junction with Cudgen Creek were cleared, with work starting in May 2010, 14 months before it was reported.
It was ‘an amazing coincidence’ that Leda dobbed itself in just as the work was completed, said Mr James, who was hit with a defamation writ from Leda after raising concerns about the removal of vegetation and the drainage of wetlands on the estate itself five years ago.
The inquiry, which led to the council’s sacking in 2005, also raised concerns about the council’s failure to take steps to stop ‘illegal clearing’ at Kings Forest. Leda dismissed the claim as being ‘at odds with the facts’ in a controversial dossier two months ago.
The NPWS has been silent over the investigation since media first learnt of it. Leda’s regional manager Mr van Rij told Echonetdaily it was ‘regrettable’ the probe has taken so long, but also declined to comment.
In her scathing attack in parliament, Ms Faehrmann said that if guilty, the property mogul should be hit with ‘the most severe penalty available’ to act as a serious deterrent.
She 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.
The MP 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.
The document was given to councillors and government MPs last month following a public outcry after Echonetdaily revealed details about the extent of the clearing in one of the shire’s few remaining koala sanctuaries.