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Byron Shire
March 7, 2021

North coast’s environmental zones ‘gutted’

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NSW environment minister Rob Stokes.
NSW environment minister Rob Stokes says the government had been ‘very careful to make sure the primary use of the land, whether it’s for conservation or agriculture, is the key driver behind the zoning decision’.

Environmentalists have condemned the NSW government’s so-called ‘reforms’ of the far north coast’s environmental zones which aim to protect the region’s high-conservation native vegetation as a ‘massive backward leap’.

Planning minister Rob Stokes yesterday announced the region’s E2 and E3 zones, which had been under review on the far north coast for three years, had been reformed to ‘protect the region’s most environmentally sensitive areas and safeguard farmland’.

But the North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) says the government had  removed the ability of far north coast councils to protect high-conservation native vegetation in the zones.

‘It is outrageous that minister Stokes has chosen an area with the highest biodiversity, and most threatened species, in NSW as the first victim of his wind back of environmental protections,’ NEFA  spokesperson Dailan Pugh said.

He said Mr Stokes has ‘set back planning and conservation of native vegetation by 35 years by effectively stopping councils’ ability to zone high conservation native vegetation for protection from inappropriate uses’.

But Mr Stokes said ‘We’ve been very careful to make sure the primary use of the land, whether it’s for conservation or agriculture, is the key driver behind the zoning decision so farmers and the community can proceed with confidence.’

He said the reforms came from recommendations of an independent review undertaken into the use of environmental zones by north coast councils in their Local Environmental Plans (LEPs).

Mr Pugh said that in September 2012, the then minister for planning announced that there would be a six-months review of E zones just for Tweed, Byron, Ballina, Kyogle and Lismore local government areas.

‘The Minister for Planning then removed all environmental zones (E2 Environmental Conservation, E3 Environmental Management and E4 Environmental Living zones) from far north coast LEPs while it was decided what to do. The review supported environmental zones,’ he said.

‘It is now over three years since far north coast councils were stopped from protecting the high conservation vegetation they had identified, and now the planning minister has effectively stopped councils from protecting any vegetation that is not already protected.

‘Under the new rules councils will only be able to zone vegetation of the highest value, such as rainforest, old-growth forest, Endangered Ecological Communities or habitat of endangered species, as E2 if they can prove that it is already being managed for environmental conservation, such as through a conservation agreement or covenant.

‘This means that most of the E2 and E3 zones identified through councils planning processes will not be able to proceed.

‘What’s more, if some vegetation miraculously gets zoned as E2, extensive agriculture can still be permitted in it if Council’s give consent.

‘The forests of the north coast of NSW have been identified as being of outstanding international, national and state value for threatened biodiversity.

‘They encompass the heart of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage property.

‘They are part of one of the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots because of their exceptional species endemism and the threat of habitat loss.

‘They include the NSW section of one of Australia’s 15 recognised biodiversity hotspots, the ‘Border Ranges North and South (Queensland and New South Wales)’.

‘They also contain the most plants and animals, including those threatened with extinction, in NSW,’ Mr Pugh said.

Mr Stokes said the reforms ‘clarify that:

  • Zoning decisions will reflect the existing primary use of the land
  • Environmental zones will only be applied to places on the North Coast where the primary use of the land is environmental conservation (E2) or environmental management (E3)
  • Before proposing an E2 or E3 zone, the council will need to validate the ecological evidence that supports the rezoning
  • Councils can use vegetation maps to recognise environmentally sensitive land on farms without having to rezone land or impose new restrictions.’

North Coast National Party MPs welcomed the changes, with Lismore MP Thomas George saying they were an important step in ensuring landholders and the community have certainty in what is permitted in different areas throughout our community’,

Tweed MP Geoff Provest ‘we want to make sure we strike the right balance to protect our environment and our local economy’.

The campaign to force the government to review the E zones was backed by farmers and local National Party supporters who organised meetings against the environmental zones in 2012.

Opponents of the E-zones claimed land values would drop as a result of the zones because of uncertainty on what could be done in the zoned areas.

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