Two years after the Tweed’s biggest developer admitted to ‘accidentally’ clearing a huge swathe of protected bushland in the Cudgen Nature Reserve next to its massive Kings Forest township development, the state government has moved again to prosecute the company.
The NSW environment department yesterday said proceedings in the longrunning case against a Leda Group company for damaging reserve land next to its subdivision for 4,500 homes on the Tweed coast in March 2011 had begun in the NSW Land and Environment Court.
The company, Leda Management Services Pty Ltd, faces hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for breaching the National Parks and Wildlife Act if found guilty by the court, which starts its hearing on March 22.
It comes only weeks after the planning department fined Leda a total of $6,000 for starting work at its other township development at Cobaki before obtaining approval and before appointing a principal certifying authority.
Cuts of depths up to 16 metres and filling of depths up to 10 metres were made without a construction certificate in the northern hillside portion of the 600 hectare site on the NSW-Queensland border earmarked for 5,500 homes.
Tweed Shire Council is also investigating massive unauthorised earthworks at Leda’s Cobaki site, including the bulldozing of a freshwater wetland and endangered frog habitat to build a huge gravel roadway, 400 metres long and 20 metres wide near a proposed parkway nearby.
But planners say the case depends on the outcome of a current assessment by the planning department for a proposed change to the previous ministerial approval for the site.
In a scathing attack on the developer in parliament late in 2011, Greens MP Cate Faehrmann described the ‘shocking case of illegal clearing of vegetation’ along a 300 metre stretch of Blacks Creek in the Cudgen Nature Reserve, involving dredging the creek ‘in flagrant defiance of its status as a habitat for threatened species’.
Ms Faehrmann, who inspected the site after the clearing, told parliament that it was thought the developer wanted ‘the creek and the land adjacent to it excised from Cudgen Nature Reserve to provide a second access to the Kings Forest development’.
She said the billionaire property mogul Bob 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 that if guilty, Leda should be hit with ‘the most severe penalty available’ to act as a serious deterrent.
Leda claims workmen bulldozed trees and other vegetation along the creek inside the protected area by accident.
In a letter leaked to Echonetdaily late in 2011, NSW environment minister Robyn Parker revealed the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) only learnt about the environmental destruction after Leda dobbed itself in.
She said that Leda had contacted the NPWS in July 2011 ‘to report that accidental vegetation clearing had occurred on the adjoining nature reserve’.
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 unsuccessfully called for a freeze on further approvals for the development until the case was finalised, saying that assumptions about drainage and flooding and future maintenance of waterways were critical to the number of lots that could be developed.
Mr James, who at the time said it was ‘an amazing coincidence’ that Leda dobbed itself in just as the work was completed, 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.
In her speech to parliament on the 2011 incident, Ms Faehrmann said she noted that the former Labor government ‘also saw fit to approve the Kings Forest development despite the developer having a history of illegal vegetation clearing’.
‘On 9 November 2007 Gold Coast City Council secured orders in the Queensland Planning and Environment Court compelling companies owned by Bob Ell to revegetate land that had been illegally cleared in November and December 2006 at Pimpama, Queensland.
‘The court judged that Leda Developments Pty Ltd and Leda Developments No 2 Pty Ltd had cleared major portions of a holding of about 100 hectares without the relevant development permits from the council.
‘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.
‘Once discovered, with legal pressure and the assistance of compliant consultants, he has managed to obtain retrospective approvals under dubious excuses and loopholes.
‘For instance, at his Cobaki Lakes holding, another mega residential development, his company Project 28 (Leda Holdings) cleared a stand of old growth scribbly gum and then had a consultant state that the trees were dangerous to human health. Council apparently accepted this claim.
‘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”.
‘This excuse was also apparently accepted by the council. It might help to understand why the council has accepted these claims when one knows of the tactics of intimidation and bullying employed by Ell and Leda.
‘To give a flavour of his reputation, Anne Davies described Bob Ell as having a “reputation as a tough developer, unafraid of litigation” in an article headed “Development yields nothing but a crop of litigation” published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 November 2004. In the same article, Leda’s manager of residential development, Reg Van Rij, is quoted as saying that “Bob Ell has deep pockets, a stubborn personality and a litigious nature”.
‘Ell and Leda have sought to silence critics with threats of defamation. Leda recently supplied a 74 page dossier to local media with details of people they consider to be hurdles to their developments, including local ecologists and councillors.
‘The dossier has not been made public, other than by selected quotes in the Tweed Daily News of 27 October 2011. However, it is understood that some people have been targeted simply because they made submissions to public consultation processes.
‘Is this latest clearing 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?
‘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.
‘I recommend that consideration be given to changing the law to ensure that developers with a history of non-compliance with planning and environment laws be precluded from further development approvals.’
Mr Ell later exercised his right of reply in parliament, challenging Ms Faehrmann’s comments.