Tweed Shire Council is considering legal action against the developer of the Cobaki housing site west of Tweed Heads as a result of massive unauthorised earthworks and filling at the site, including the bulldozing of a freshwater wetland and endangered-frog habitat.
Cuts of depths up to 16 metres and filling of depths up to 10 metres were made without any approved construction certificate in the northern hillside portion of the 600-hectare site, according to a staff report.
In the southern section of the site near the proposed Cobaki Parkway, a huge gravel roadway, 400 metres long and 20 metres wide, has been built without construction-certificate approval, which staff say goes through the wetlands and habitat of the endangered Wallum Froglet.
Staff say they’ve acted to stop the unauthorised works but given the scale of the compliance and enforcement issues, legal advice on how to rectify them and possible penalties was warranted.
Leda, owned by billionaire property player Bob Ell, is also currently being investigated by the NSW environment department over alleged illegal clearing of a 300-metre stretch of vegetation along a creek in the Cudgen Nature Reserve adjoining its Kings Forest site for 5,500 homes.
Authorities implicated Leda in that controversial and long-running case, whereby Leda claimed workmen bulldozed trees and other vegetation inside the protected area, a known koala habitat, by accident.
At the time, environment minister Robyn Parker said she was concerned by what occurred inside the reserve and both the NPWS and the Department of Public Works launched an investigation well over a year ago, which her spokesperson told Echonetdaily last week was still ‘ongoing’.
Tweed planners said about the latest unauthorised works that council has a statutory responsibility to enforce compliance, and failure ‘may lead to Council having its powers mitigated by other authorities’.
Staff said that in June this year Leda’s engineering consultant requested council endorse ‘a gravel access track’ to be built along the Cobaki Parkway alignment to enable access for vehicles and drilling rigs to the southern part of the site to ‘undertake geotechnical investigations’.
Council gave permission, with conditions, for the ‘construction of a very basic, gravel access track within the allocated parkway road reserve and within the salt-marsh area of the estate’.
In early July, staff inspected the site and found the works had ‘significantly exceeded that agreed by council, appearing to be works incorporating the extension of the Cobaki Parkway as opposed to a benign access track for geotechnical testing purposes’.
Staff said the company also had not complied with the conditions specified by council, such as installing erosion and sediment controls, or giving the required 48 hours notice when works were intended to start.
Mayor Barry Longland said there was a high possibility that contamination of waterways could have occurred by the unauthorised works, including acid-sulphate soil disturbance with impact on ‘a range’ of endangered ecological communities, both fauna and flora.
Cr Longland said the bulk earthworks and the ‘quite extensive road’ were apparently built without any construction certificates, which involved the vital environmental impact assessments of the works.
He said confusion had arisen for both council and Leda staff because some early council consents for the site were not extinguished when the concept plan was approved by the minister.
The Cobaki site concept plan for around 5,000 homes was approved by the lands minister under the controversial old Part 3A approvals process in February last year, while the first stages of the development were approved by the Joint Regional Planning Panel in May last year.
Cr Warren Polglase, despite voting for the staff recommendation to bring in the lawyers, told council that legal action should be the last resort, preferring council planners and Leda staff ‘sit down and work through this’.
‘We’ve seen these sort of issues with [other major developments] at Salt and Casuarina; once you start bringing the legal people in, the lines will be drawn in the sand,’ he said.
Councillors will consider the legal options report at next month’s meeting.
In a scathing attack in parliament last year, Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann said that if found guilty over the Cudgen Nature Reserve clearing, the property mogul should be hit with ‘the most severe penalty available’ to act as a serious deterrent.
Image: The unauthorised road or ‘access’ track, looking towards the Cobaki Parkway, is 400 metres long and 20 metres wide.