Not everyone was happy with the consultation process undertaken by North Coast Holiday Parks early this year. Video Sharon Shostak
Perhaps the biggest ever development of Brunswick Heads has been approved by the coalition state government, however it remarkably comes without any press release, publicity or notification.
Additionally, the independent audit that accompanies the public submission report casts doubt on the state government’s decision to approve ambitious plans to develop the town’s three holiday parks and Crown reserves.
It comes as the government’s Crown Lands White Paper (www.bit.ly/1rllofw), closed for public submission on June 20. It recommended privatising large swathes of public lands for commercial activity.
A tip-off from an Echo reader points to the announcement for Bruns on the NSW Crown Lands website (bit.ly/1kvpYov), which says the plans of management (POMs) ‘have been approved and adopted by the minister on June 2, 2014’.
The website also contains the POMs for Ferry Reserve, Massey Greene, Terrace Reserve Holiday Park and other Brunswick Heads Crown foreshore reserves.
Audit casts doubt on approval decision
To gain the minister’s approval, a submission report and audit were required to examine the public’s comments while on exhibition and methodology used.
The submission report claims that the issues have been addressed for 1,425 individual issues that arose from 158 public submissions and two petitions presented, one of which had 2,095 signatures. But the audit that examined the report is critical of the lack of recognition of ‘significant and frequently raised issues that were beyond the scope of the planning process’.
The audit, authored by Dr John Mackenzie, also questions the methodology used in collating the submissions, undertaken by North Coast Holiday Parks (NCHP) manager Jim Bolger.
It’s the latest in a long-running dispute between the NSW government and locals and councillors, sparked in 2008 after the government took control of public assets from the cash-strapped Byron Council, resulting in a loss of revenue.
The revamp plans went on exhibition late last year, and NCHP’s Bolger faced an angry public at his two public information sessions over various issues. They included proposing to cut public access areas previously accessed and the continuing encroachment of public lands to accommodate holiday park expansion.
And bad press has hounded Bolger for other reasons: The Echo reported that he inexplicably tried to evict the long-established Brunswick Buccaneer boat hire business with just four days notice in April last year. At the time of his POM exhibition period, Bolger refused to answer The Echo’s questions and omitted any reference to the 30-year-old tourist attraction in his POMs.
Bolger’s actions sparked a petition, with thousands of signatures collated in supportive of retaining the tourist attraction. While then-Crown Lands minister Andrew Stoner (Nationals) refused to comment, local NSW MP Don Page (Nationals) made a remarkable ‘on the run’ policy announcement and suggested the operator apply for permission through Bolger’s POM.
Later a year-long agreement was reached between Bolger and its current operator, Ilan Schnitzler.
Has Bolger listened?
So with such large-scale changes to Bruns, has Bolger listened to the community?
Not according to residents, who roundly slammed the report. Patricia Warren described the outcome as, ‘peanuts for the peasants,’ and Bolger’s responses ‘purely cosmetic’.
She is just one of a group of residents who have been active in opposing NCHP’s takeover and subsequent expansion plans.
Ms Warren told The Echo, ‘The comments/recommendations made [by NCHP regarding the submissions] do not address the contentious issues of boundaries, and by default, the minister and his advisers have opposed the community’s strong and continued opposition to these land grabs.’
Public access ‘conditional’
As for one of the most contentious issues – public foreshore access along Simpson’s Creek at Terrace Reserve holiday park – Mr Bolger responded with, ‘Conditional access… is provided subject to reasonable conditions.’
Ms Warren replied that contrary to strong public opposition, this allows a determination to ‘privatise’ sites for long-term tenants.
‘There is no mention of natural attrition at all to bring the foreshore into the public domain. This begs the question: why here and not at the Rocks in Sydney (where the government has announced it will remove long-term tenants where their longevity has been inter-generational)? In addition, there is clear intent to expand their operational area to include the old tennis courts as a car parking area.’
Similarly another resident, Sean O’Meara, agreed that, ‘very few concerns were addressed’, and ‘lip service was given to most other issues’.
He pointed to the vague and noncommittal language used, such as ‘likely to be relaxed’, ‘fences only installed as last resort’, ‘we will endeavour’ and ‘have noted and will consider.’
‘This response holds them to nothing and they will go on as usual if something is not done,’ says O’Meara.
‘They have totally ignored the 2,500 plus online responses/submissions – nearly double the Bruns population – which came in from mostly local people who were named. We specifically knew an email would go to Bolger, Don Page MP and NSWCLHP against the POM. [The online petition] clearly stated the specific issues they were objecting to.
Regarding the issue of maintaining public access to and along the foreshore, O’Meara says, ‘[Bolger] reports only 45 submissions, yet this is specifically the issue people who sent the online submission were objecting to. This report is a sham. He has reported less than two per cent of objections. Not only did 2,500 people email their objections specifically about the four key areas of concern via online submissions, but over 1,000 of these people specifically added their own thoughts and additional complaints in these submissions.
‘We specifically went online with these submissions because we had no faith that there would be honest reporting of the real facts. All submissions were supposed to be sent to Bolger at NCHP as we had no faith that the real results would be acknowledged. By going online, all submissions were there for all to see and read.
‘Bolger has also not included the hundreds of other submissions made against the first and similar POMs, and totally ignored the three public rallies that have taken place over the last few years. I would challenge Bolger to scrape together more than 20 names of Brunswick Heads locals who agree with his actions and think it is OK to privatise our public foreshore areas and block local families and tourists from playing in the parks and swimming in the rivers. They have used [these areas] for a hundred years, so why should they now be fenced off for the exclusive use of those who can afford to pay?’
While the audit concluded the methodology was ‘sound, comprehensive, thorough and reliable,’ Dr Mackenzie paradoxically describes that dividing submissions into the categories of support/neutral/object as, ‘not considered reliable for statistical purposes.’
Additionally discrepancies were observed, which yielded ‘significantly different results’ and ‘potential confusion’.
But most cogent was that, ‘several significant and frequently raised issues that were beyond the scope of the planning process have not been included in the analysis.’
‘For example, issues raised concerning park governance, the inconsistency of the POMs with the regional character and the community engagement process featured prominently in the reviewed submissions but were not included in the analysis. In each case, these issues were considered by NSWCHPT to be beyond the scope of the POMs or the Trust. However, the inclusion of these issues in the issue categories should be considered. This would not result in any changes to the recommendations, but could also provide decision-makers and the community with a more comprehensive understanding of points raised in the submissions.’
Dr Mackenzie also said, ‘Numerous submissions contained a combination of supporting and opposing recommendations, and in such cases the inference that a submitter was either “opposed” or “supportive” of the plan(s) cannot be made with confidence.’
MP Humphries approved plans
Despite the audit’s dubious findings, cost-shifting and the public calls for the return of the assets, the new minister responsible for Crown Lands, Kevin Humphries, is predictably standing by his decision.
His spokesperson told The Echo that, ‘there are no plans,’ to change Crown reserves management in Brunswick Heads. And while the spokesperson refused to acknowledge the audit’s claims that major issues outside the scope were ignored, they instead claimed that the ‘methodology used by the Trust was sound and the findings were comprehensive, thorough and reliable.’
They added that due process had been undertaken, with the Trust board making ‘41 changes in terms of public access, commercial activities and other key elements of the plans.’
Wary of asset sale: Cr Woods
Both mayor Simon Richardson and councillor Di Woods told The Echo that they were unable to comment until after a staff briefing on Tuesday. Cr Woods said however, ‘With the new White Paper on Crown Reserves, I am wary of the potential for the Crown to sell off financially viable assets. [This may] leave councils with unviable parcels of land with possible high maintenance costs which would have to be borne by councils. Staff are preparing a submission on the paper, and we are yet to receive a copy.’
Meanwhile, Brunswick Heads chamber of commerce president, Peter Wotton, told The Echo his chamber hadn’t reviewed the report audit ‘as yet,’ but said he will be responding publicly soon. ‘Our committee will be meeting this week to discuss this very important matter,’ he said.
The Bruns POMs, its public submission report and audit are available at http://bit.ly/1kvpYov.