Who was telling the truth?
Was it the uber-wealthy Gold Coast developer behind the new Mercato shopping centre on Jonson Street, or was it Council’s chief planner, Shannon Burt?
Let’s get to that, but first, the context, which was acted out in varying degrees of competency by councillors at Council’s planning meeting last Thursday.
A lawyer representing Mercato developer Robert Badalotti asked councillors during morning access to waive a considerable fee for their airspace lease, which is a Council tax for building a balcony over a street.
Badalotti’s lawyer Ross Fox said that Badalotti had an understanding with staff that he would receive a peppercorn lease for the balconies, which now tower over Jonson Street.
He then went on to explain that the developer went ‘above what was required,’ in the DA, with around $750,000 of extra spending in art and associated works.
Later in the debate, mayor Simon Richardson said that while the airspace policy was in place when the DA was first submitted, the cost ‘doubled since it was opened’.
Therefore, argued the mayor, the developer should be given a fee reduction.
There was a lack of consistency about how it is applied, he added.
Yet what followed was remarkable. The Greens mayor lavished the Gold Coast developer with praise.
‘This is a far better outcome than what could have happened,’ said the mayor.
‘We got better ventilation – which is not a bad outcome – that was a commercial cost for developer’.
Okay – there’s a lot at stake here, dear reader. The mayor pinned his reputation early on as a negotiator with this development, and supported the developer’s wish to fast-track its completion.
He defended meeting with the developer with staff over that wish, without any other councillor present.
At the time, he was criticised on the basis that other councillors should have been informed about that, and been present at meetings with developers.
So what we have ended up with?
A large shopping mall that is much larger than anything that surrounds it (a precedent perhaps), and the much-touted Green five-star rating, we learn later, was non-binding and just an ‘aspiration’.
It was a pity the mayor left the room after his speech, as Cr Cameron made some interesting points.
‘A policy exists’, Cr Cameron said. ‘It allows for an equitable outcome for all’.
‘If we change it on the run and do ad hoc decisions, we are asking for trouble’.
Cr Cameron described the height argument as ‘disingenuous’.
‘The developer wanted to add to the height, so it was a benefit. We suffered landscaping loss. I see concrete edges instead of what was proposed. We shouldn’t make decisions on informal conversations.
‘This is about raising revenue in a shire with a low ratebase’.
Cr Cameron added, ‘This is not a one off’.
‘This same developer wants a concession for height extension for the nextdoor DA and are using the Mercato as the precedent’.
Indeed – Badalotti is now seeking to capitalise on his precedent, with a massive $40m 146-room hotel on the old Woolies site next door.
Were there any negotiations on what Badalotti would do there when the Mercato deal was being made?
So when Council’s planner Shannon Burt was eventually asked if, in a private meeting with staff, the developer Badalotti secured an agreement for a peppercorn airspace lease, she replied, ‘No’.
Moving on, Greens Cr Sarah Ndiaye supported the mayor’s courageous position that Council were at fault and that we are all lucky to get what we got.
She said, ‘We are not appeasing developers; our policy hasn’t been clear’.
‘We’ve done pretty well. It all came from ongoing discussions with the developer’.
To prove her point that we could have ended up with a much worse development, she showed an illustration of the second Mercato proposal on the overhead projector.
‘This is a visual eyesore and not in keeping with who we are. We could have had fast food and Dan Murphys’.
Was there legal advice tabled as to whether the original DA could have been refused owing to its not fitting in with the character of the street?
That seems a reasonable position, given the law allows that, and is especially relevant if a clear policy outlining the town’s character is in place.
It’s all unknown because it wasn’t mentioned during the debate.
Do wealthy developers mostly get their way in Byron Shire?
At one point, Cr Alan Hunter said the developer was ‘a pretty formidable fella’.
A motion by Cr Cate Coorey was eventually supported, which refused the request for a peppercorn lease under Byron Shire Council’s Airspace Policy as recommended by the staff in the Council agenda.
Additionally the ‘fees and charges for road airspace usage (commercial occupation) be reviewed as part of the annual fees and charges process’.
Crs Coorey, Lyon, Cameron, Hackett, and Spooner voted in favour of the motion; Crs Ndiaye and Hunter voted against.
Both the Greens mayor and Cr Jeannette Martin were absent for the vote.
Cr Ndiaye’s amendment was voted down, which sought to apply the airspace fee ‘at a rate of 50 per cent of the footpath dining adopted fees and charges per square metre rental rates for DA2013.587.6, applicable at the time of the application for a period of five years’.