The letter sent to the residents of Ewingsdale last year by holiday park owner Ingenia seemed fairly innocuous at first glance.
More than a few of the colourful missives went straight to the recycling bin unopened.
But those who took a closer look discovered that, rather than encouraging locals to book a holiday cabin over Christmas, the letter was announcing plans for an over 55s housing development.
Ingenia is proposing to build the retirement village on two large blocks of land behind Byron Hospital, arguing that there is ‘a clear demand, and a shortage of options for over 55s to retire or age in place in the Ewingsdale region’.
It is planning to build around 160 units, but has promised to constrain development to ‘about 45 per cent of the site’.
The company has also given a guarantee that it will fund the restoration of an historic cottage on the site – Higgins House – and build another roundabout on Ewingsdale Road to facilitate access.
The letters were the start of a public consultation campaign, and perhaps also an attempt to win over local hearts and minds.
But a significant number of Ewingsdale residents were not happy.
Nearly 300 signed a petition declaring clear opposition to any plan to rezone the site for development.
They say it is completely inconsistent with the village’s rural, low-density character, and that services and infrastructure are insufficient.
‘We the people of rural Ewingsdale village insist the R5 & R2 ruling remain in line with what this village is all about: Country!’ said the petition, submitted to Byron Council at last week’s meeting.
‘We suggest that ‘Ingenia’ forfeit their deposit and move onto their other options.’
It is not the first time someone has attempted to develop the site.
Back in 2016, a proposal for a mixed commercial, medical and residential development was knocked back.
However, this time the proposal is much smaller and, crucially, is proceeding with some apparent encouragement in the form of Council’s Business and Industrial Lands Strategy (BILS).
Under the strategy, which has been approved by Council and has received a preliminary tick by the NSW Planning Department, the area around Byron Hospital has been earmarked as a future health hub precinct.
Opponents believe that Ingenia’s eyes lit up when the BILS gave this endorsement, and believe it will argue that the retirement village is in keeping with the strategy.
Fuelling their anger and dismay is the fact that Council quietly added the Byron Hospital precinct to the BILS after public consultation for the strategy had concluded, denying them the right to comment on plans that directly affected their town.
‘What sort of Council does that? Just whacks something in and says “Oh, we’ll be right”,’ the president of Community Alliance Byron Shire, Matthew O’Reilly, asked during an impassioned speech to last week’s full Council meeting.
‘Now the Ewingsdale community have to come back and say “Hang on, an R2 zoning? In rural lands? We didn’t hear about that!”.
‘That’s because you never spoke to them about it, you never asked them, you just put it in. I’m not saying a seniors’ housing development near the hospital is a bad thing, but the hide of this Council to do this without asking the community…’
However, Council’s Director of Sustainable Environment and Economy, Shannon Burt, told the meeting that the retirement village proposal was not consistent with the BILS and that Ingenia had been told this in no uncertain terms.
‘We have advised the current interested parties that what they’re looking to do is not consistent with the BILS or Council’s vision for the area around the hospital,’ Ms Burt said.
‘As private developers looking to purchase private land it’s up to them how they wish to proceed with negotiations on purchase or communicating with people in the neighbourhood [about their plans].’
Ms Burt also told the meeting that such a development would require a special ‘spot rezoning’ application that would have to be approved by the NSW Planning Department. The Department had also indicated that it would require a masterplan to be created for the precinct prior to any development there – a process that would involve consultation with the local community.
On the basis of this advice, Byron councillors voted down a motion by Independent councillor Cate Coorey proposing that Council advise Ingenia that their plans were not consistent with the BILS.
Instead, the majority voted in favour of an amended motion put forward by Mayor Simon Richardson.
Under this motion, Council agreed to ‘note the petition’ submitted by residents, and to ‘undertake a community consultation process with regard to the proposed hospital precinct, as per Council’s community engagement strategy’.