NSW environment minister Rob Stokes has dropped a bombshell on Tweed Shire Council, warning the state could intervene if a koala protection gate at the Black Rocks sportsfield south of Pottsville is removed.
Koala campaigners around the Tweed were outraged last month when a controversial move to unlock the gates at night, led by Cr Barry Longland and supported by council’s pro-development faction, narrowly succeeded.
At Thursday’s meeting, a letter from the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) under control of Mr Stokes to council general manager Troy Green was circulated in which the OEH’s chief executive expressed concern that the move to replace the koala-proof gate by a grid before a study on the koala numbers around Black Rocks was done would place the local koala ‘under further threat’.
Parts of the letter were read out by mayor Gary Bagnall during a move with Cr Katie Milne in which they tried to have January’s contentious decision to remove the gate rescinded.
But that move failed after Crs Longland, Carolyn Byrne, Warren Polglase and Phil Youngblutt voted against it (Cr Michael Armstrong absent).
In an extraordinary twist, the minutes recording the original resolution of the meeting of January meeting were changed at Cr Longland’s request to include the minister’s request for the koala-numbers study by the Office of Environment and Heritage to be completed before the gate was replaced with a grid.
That change infuriated the mayor who later questioned whether it was legal, but the rescission notice included the new wording for the completion of the study.
Council’s governance officer Neil Mr Baldwin told Echonetdaily that in confirming the January minutes, ‘Council took the opportunity to adjust the resolution in relation to the Black Rocks sportsfield in light of a letter received from the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) requesting that Council reconsider the motion on this matter’.
Mr Baldwin said ‘Cr Longland indicated that it was not the intent to remove the gates and install the grid until the study had been undertaken and he felt that the intent that he put forward at the January council meeting in relation to this matter was not properly recorded in the motion’.
Mr Baldwin said council had ‘previously adjusted the recording of voting on matters and in this instance took the opportunity to properly record the intent of the motion’.
But Cr Bagnall maintains it was not Cr Longland’s intent at all.
The new recorded notice of motion includes that the gates should not be replaced by a grid ‘until the study referred to in paragraph 1 is complete with the General Manager being authorised to accept the assistance offered by the Office of Environment and Heritage to complete the study without delay’.
In any case, the four opposing councillors voted down the rescission motion by Crs Bagnall and Milne, even with the new wording.
Cr Longland, who is yet to respond to Echonetdaily on the issue, had moved at council’s first meeting for the year in January to remove the entrance gates ‘as soon as possible’ claiming the trial of locking the gates at night has been a ‘failure with significant negative impacts for the public’ and that ‘the removal of the gates as a matter of priority will restore access to public open space for the benefit of Tweed residents’.
Team Koala supporters who packed the council chambers were outraged at the backflip on Tweed council’s decision last year to close the gate at night, when koalas are more likely to be on the move.
General manager Mr Green told Echonetdaily that a senior OEH officer had contacted council following Thursday’s meeting at which the agency’s chief Terry Bailey’s letter had been tabled.
Mr Green said it ‘and it will be my intent to now accept their offer to provide expert technical advice and support in undertaking the study requested in Cr Longland’s notice of motion’.
Mr Bailey said he’d received a number of letters concerned over the management of koalas in the Black Rocks sportsfiled area, especially the move to replace the gate.
He said in his letter that the koala population around the sportsfield was included in the NSW Scientific Committee’s preliminary determination to list koalas in the Tweed local government area east of the Pacific Highway as ‘an endangered population’.
‘I am advised that Tweed Shire Council installed a koala proof gate at the entrance to Black Rocks sportsfield in August 2014 based on the recommendations of council’s Tweed Coast Koala Advisory Committee,’ Mr Bailey said.
‘I note that at the council meeting of 22 January 2015 a motion was passed to replace the gate with a koala grid. I understand the motion also required the commissioning of a study of the koala numbers in the local precinct and preparation of a report to address ‘hooning’ behaviour on the sports ground entrance road.
‘While the OEH would applaud council for undertaking a study of the koala numbers at Black Rocks it is concerned that the gate may be removed and replaced by a grid prior to finalising the outcomes of the study, thereby potentially placing the koala population under further threat.
‘I respectfully request council to reconsider the motion to replace the existing gates at the entrance to the sporting field and not make any changes until the koala study is completed.
‘This will allow more detailed information to be available regarding koalas, their habitat usage and the threats operating in the surrounding area to ensure that any decision regarding the sports field access and use is based on accurate and up to date ecological data.
‘OEH is happy to provide expert technical advice and support in undertaking the study.
‘Please note that the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 and National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 contain intervention provisions which may be exercised if in the opinion of OEH there is any action proposed which is likely to result in harm to a threatened species, population or ecological community,’ Mr Bailey said.
During last Thursday’s debate, Cr Phil Youngblutt produced numerous photos of wild and domestic dogs caught in dingo traps at Dunloe Park south of Black Rocks recently, in his argument to get rid of the koala-proof gates.
Cr Youngblutt said the dogs had killed many cows and calves and questioned the use of the gates in protecting koalas with such wild dogs roaming around the area.
But Cr Bagnall assured him the gate was to keep domestic dogs and hooning cars out of the sportsfield, saying putting a grid there would put the lives of koalas at risk as dogs could easily step across them.
Dunloe Park is a large coastal grazing and sand-mining property proposed for major future urban rezoning and development.