NSW planning department staff are refusing to be transparent with the community after key information was omitted from a freedom of information request regarding the proposed West Byron Project.
The 108-hectare site development west of Byron Bay could contain upward of 800 homes and is expected to be approved shortly.
Lodged by the Byron Residents Group (BRG), the Government Information Public Access (GIPA) request sought to reveal the planning department’s briefing notes to planning minister Pru Goward.
Questions to the department from Echonetdaily regarding the refusal were also stonewalled.
Within the 142 pages provided, much related to the already available Byron Council’s Koala Habitat Study.
Nothing was divulged on reports or comments on the Belongil Estuary, acid sulfate soils or traffic management.
But the files did reveal that as far back as 2009, then-planning minister Kristina Keneally (Labor) pushed the project on council.
In a letter to the general manager, she said ‘with the Byron area facing significant issues of housing affordability and land availability, the lack of progress in the planning of the West Byron Urban Release Area for residential land release, is of significant concern.’
While an appeal will reassess the GIPA request, the residents group’s Cate Coorey said, ‘what is very clear from this request is that the department of planning appears to be doing nothing about truly assessing the merits of this rezoning and development proposal and is simply accepting the information from developers uncritically.
‘We would like to know why the department is failing to properly assess West Byron. It is not the function of the department to just rubber stamp developers’ proposals,’ Ms Coorey said.
When asked if the lack of transparency was of concern, local MP Don Page (Nationals) said that while he supports transparency, ‘I’m not an expert on the GIPA Act.’
‘The presumption should be for openness and transparency,’ Mr Page said.
Meanwhile, resident Damien Antico says that at a public meeting held in December 2013, NSW planners disregarded the public’s request for a deferment until more information was supplied. He said that group included the mayor and Byron Shire Council’s planning manager, Ray Darney.
Mr Antico told Echonetdaily ‘it would appear that the reason for the meeting was to be seen to be consulting the community; however, our unanimous view to wait was disregarded.’
Mayor Simon Richardson confirmed he was present at the meeting and the group supported rezoning deferment.
Mr Darney added that council has always had concerns about the environmental and housing density constraints of the West Byron site, a position which is supported by the Byron Residents Group.
An early indication of NSW planning minister Pru Goward’s decision on West Byron was revealed after the group recently met with the minister
Ms Goward has stuck by her department’s population growth figures used to justify giving the green light to the controversial plan to build 1,000 homes at West Byron.
The BRG met with Ms Goward two weeks ago in Sydney to put residents’ concerns directly with the minister, who they say was being misled by her department about the supposed need for the housing development.
The group said state planners were ‘cooking up a planning shortage’ of housing in Byron Shire that did not exist in order to justify the contentious development.
But in a reply to questions from Echonetdaily, Ms Goward’s office issued a brief response ‘from a departmental spokesperson’ saying that ‘based on population projections released earlier in 2014, Byron Bay will grow 18 per cent by 2031, which means the area needs more housing for the future’.
The response also said ‘the views of the West Byron community have been taken into account at every stage of the West Byron proposal with protection of the environment a key consideration’.
The West Byron development is being determined by the planning minister rather than Byron Shire Council, which has concerns about impacts on traffic, koala habitat, sewerage capacity and acid-sulfate soils.
Ms Coorey said the delegation ‘explained that most of the information that [the minister] had been receiving about West Byron was from the developers’ perspective. Their reports for this rezoning are incomplete, insufficient or misleading’.