The Tweed Coast’s dwindling koala population has been given a lifeline by Tweed Shire Council which last night resolved to urge the federal government to ban dogs from the massive Kings Forest housing development.
Councillors also rejected a controversial bid to build floodlit tennis courts at a sportsfield surrounded by koala habitat and wildlife corridor at Black Rocks south of Pottsville.
A packed public gallery loudly applauded decisions on both proposed developments which give koalas, whose numbers on the Tweed Coast have dropped to around 140, a fighting chance of survival.
Councillors first voted 5-2 (Crs Warren Polglase, Phil Youngblutt against) on a notice of motion to urge the federal environment department to ban dogs, except special ‘assistance’ animals such as guide dogs, from the township development.
The development for 4,500 homes is currently being assessed for environmental impacts by the federal government and council will now make a submission asking for the dog ban.
Deputy mayor Michael Armstrong succeeded in his move which combined two separate motions by mayor Barry Longland and Cr Katie Milne for the dog ban, but added the exemption for the assistance animals under federal disability discrimination laws.
Cr Carolyn Byrne failed to have ‘companion’ animals included in the exemption and argued council’s submission should be ‘based on facts’ and not ‘political agendas’, after a section of the public gallery had expressed its disapproval to her move.
Cr Armstrong said the symbolism of the koala for not just Tweed shire but the whole country was huge and ‘important for our national psyche’.
‘With so few koalas left on the Tweed Coast we must protect what we have left so that there may be at least some chance for our children experiencing the delight of seeing koalas in their natural environment and not just learn about them in a history class,’ he said.
Cr Armstrong was applauded by the gallery after saying that urging for the dog ban would send ‘a clear message that we value the koala population in the Tweed and we’ll do all in our power to try and save them not just for today, but tomorrow and the future’.
Cr Milne said Tweed shire had a long history of failure in protecting koalas before around 1990 ‘when we realised the drastic situation they were in’.
She said the threat to koalas’ existence on the Tweed had ‘galvanised the community to save them not just from this development but others across the shire which will impact on their few remaining colonies and habitat.
‘Everything we do has an impact on them, it’s all adding up and we need to reverse that decline’, she said, also to loud applause.
Cr Gary Bagnall said around 75 koalas were known to use the Kings Forest site, 15 of them permanently living there.
He said the Australian Koala Foundation had reported that nearly a third of koalas were killed by traffic, with dogs kiling around 10 per cent, and starvation and disease the remainder ‘and that was mostly due to habitat loss’.
Cr Bagnall said Kings Forest would generate around 18,000 vehicle movements per day on the estate ‘and the destructive impact on the remaining koala population is quite obvious’.
He said that throughout the long history of the development, numerous state departments and agencies had raised concerns about the koalas’ plight, and as a result, many officials had recommended a ban on all pets except guide dogs.
Many of the references in the Kings Forest development application used outdated data and a localised koala plan of management ‘did not identify how roaming or off-leash dogs also affected their rate of mortality’.
Developer Leda’s regional manager Reg Van Rij told Echonetdaily this morning that a dog ban at Kings Forest could result in the development failing to go ahead as it was ‘the self -evident commercial consequence’.
Mr Van Rij said council’s submission will be considered in the federal assessment, ‘along will all others, in the making of a merit- based decision’.
Pro-development Cr Youngblutt said he objected to claims dogs were one of the main causes of koala deaths, saying a state planning workshop had identified bushfires and disease as the main causes of their death.
Mayor Barry Longland, whose previous support to allow restricted dogs in the estate raised the ire of koala campaigners, said council early last year had unanimously endorsed a submission to the state government for consideration of the Tweed/Brunswick koalas as endangered.
(The federal government in that time has also elevated the protection status of koalas in NSW, Queensland and the ACT to ‘vulnerable’ under federal law).
Cr Longland said the precautionary principle should apply in recognising the plight of the kolala ‘and we have a responsibility in that regard’.
Meanwhile, the recommendation by chief planner Vince Connell to approve the building of the tennis courts, lighting and car parking at the Black Rocks sports field was rejected last night.
Cr Armstrong, backed by Cr Milne, successfully moved in a 4-3 vote to refuse the development in Overall Drive which had sparked a public protest on site last week and a letter campaign at short notice against it signed by almost 4,000 people.
The pro-development minority faction of Crs Polglase, Youngblutt and Byrne supported approving the facility.
Cr Armstrong said the arguments against the development were much the same as for the Kings Forest dog ban, including the ‘unacceptable’ impact to koala habitat and breeding area which threatened their population.
Other sites better suited
He said council should explore other sites for a tennis facility or improve current ones to accommodate it.
The precautionary principle, he said, was also vital and the thought of children growing up in the area without seeing a koala in its natural state was ‘tragic and terrifying’.
Cr Armstrong said that no matter which way it was looked at, the tennis court plan was still a development in koala habitat and the issue would remain for years to come.
‘We need sporting facilities but not here,’ he said.
Cr Milne said the tennis courts were just another development which would impact on koala habitat or their movement as the facility would ‘attract roaming dogs and hooning’.
She said that in a short period of time, almost a third of the Pottsville locals had petitioned against it.
‘It’s incredibly heartening to see this community so values their koalas,’ Cr Milne said.
She said the state government could be approached to help refurbish existing tennis courts in the area, as the Pottsville bypass was no longer going ahead so there was no need to remove them.
Cr Byrne said the development should go ahead because council planners were satisfied that environmental factors had been considered.
She said sporting facilities should be encouraged because of the ‘obesity’ problem.
But Cr Bagnall the shire had a substantial oversupply of open space in Pottsville where all sporting facilities were catered for.
He said that by looking at an aerial photo-map of the sports field, one sees ‘a big patch cut out’ of a heavily vegetated area where many koala sightings had been marked.
‘I’m concerned their habitat was lost to Pottsville in the first place, I’d like to see the whole (sportsfield) site given back to the koalas,’ he said.
Cr Bagnall said renowned koala expert Dr Stephen Phillips had expressed concern about the development, saying it was in the middle of a koala corridor used by breeding animals.
‘So any increased use of the area by humans or domestic dogs won’t be a good outcome and council is not enforcing a dog ban here,’ the councillor said.
Black Rocks is one of three koala population cells on the Tweed Coast with an estimated 35 koalas living and breeding there.
Meanwhile, councillors were unanimous in voting to accept a staff report update on the Biofund Koala Connections Project and to approve proposed funding to private landowners to undertake koala habitat or corridor enhancing projects.
The project, managed and administered by Tweed Shire Council in conjunction with Byron Shire, uses just over $2 million of federal sustainability funding to implement linking koala habitat and endangered ecological communities.
A further $100,000 over three years will be contributed to the project from Council’s Biodiversity Grant Program.
Cr Armstrong said the project was a great example of Tweed and Byron councils working together to create links for koala corridors.
Cr Milne urged ‘all to spread the word’ of the project, because council was limited with what it could do and there was a need to set land aside for tree plantings for koala habitat and corridors.