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Byron Shire
May 30, 2024

Contested land in West Ballina to be protected?

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Part of the land proposed to be protected, on Burns Point Ferry Road West Ballina. Photo David Lowe.

The controversial property adjoining Burns Point Ferry Road and River Street in West Ballina seems likely to be saved from large scale development following the last Ballina Council meeting.

Since being put back on the table as a potential development site by the previous council (in a very tight decision), there has been a groundswell of opposition to the idea from locals, new flooding concerns, and a decision from the Land and Environment Court which declared the entire site had environmental values which were threatened by the plans of the developer, GemLife.

The developer has since suggested they could scale back the development to 20% of the original site (and perhaps 150 dwellings instead of 300+), while also assisting with the Ballina housing crisis. Gemlife have proposed a new ecological study to address remaining concerns, but the majority of councillors appeared unconvinced.

Current zoning for the affected land.

Grey area

Cr Phil Meehan wanted to know how Ballina Council could greenlight any development of the northern area of the site since the court had declared it ‘unsuitable for urban development because of endangered ecological communities’.

Matt Wood, the Manager of Strategic Planning at Ballina Council, said there was a grey area in relation to the application of the Biodiversity Conservation Act.

‘Where are the thresholds for what is considered to be a suitable level of avoidance of an endangered ecological community?

‘I think what the proponent’s doing here is trying to direct the bulk of the proposed development into what would be considered, in the ecological mapping, the most degraded area of the endangered ecological community,’ said Mr Wood.

‘The fact remains though, the endangered ecological communities are across that full area.’

Other councillors pointed out that part of the affected area was still being slashed by the developer, but it wasn’t clear if there was an avenue for council to legally prevent that.

Matt Wood explained to councillors that the only way to protect the site was with new zoning, reflecting the latest ecological understanding.

Cr Simon Chate asked if it was likely that the proponent’s new ecological study would differ in any substantial way from the work that had already been done? Matt Wood said that would be unlikely.

Ballina Cr Phil Meehan. Photo supplied.

Controversial history

Cr Meehan said the zoning matter for the affected land had been before the council at least as long as he had been involved (2016). ‘There there have been concerns all through these years,’ he said, ‘including around potential flooding impacts to adjoining properties with a large amount of fill.’

He said the key fact emerging from the court decision is that development of the more degraded northern zone, as proposed by GemLife, would have ‘serious, irreversible effects’ which could not be offset by not developing the even more fragile southern section of the land (adjoining the river).

Cr Meehan urged his fellow councillors to follow staff’s recommendation to rethink the R2 zoning which made urban development possible on the site – and was inconsistent with biodiversity values – and instead change it to a conservation zoning.

‘The Land and Environment Court’s findings were before the March floods,’ he said. ‘If we were to look at public opinion following the February-March floods I don’t think that we would find any person in West Ballina who would think that filling that land is a good idea.

‘So my view is bolstered by what I would say is our public interest as well, but that’s a personal view. It’s not in our business paper.’

Ballina Council considers GemLife’s deposition.

Rod Bruem’s view

Cr Rod Bruem said he wanted to defer the decision in light of the ongoing housing crisis. Reacting to GemLife’s proposed buildings he said, ‘Heck, they look pretty good to me. I think people would pay a lot of money for that.’

He went on to say, ‘Obviously, I wasn’t here for the previous decisions. I wasn’t here for the court actions, but if someone wants to invest in more housing in this shire, and do it in a sensitive way, that’s not going to impact on the environment, let them pay to do it. And come back to us again and let us have another look at it.’

Cr Jeff Johnson spoke against the proposed amendment, saying it was inappropriate to ‘encourage the proponent to go and do further studies, and submit another application for development on this site, given the significant court ruling that has thrown the previous application basically into the dustbin.’

He said a proposed fill level of up to 3.5 metres adjacent to endangered ecological communities proved the site was totally unfit for development.  Cr Johnson said various versions of the plan had come before council since the 1970s and ‘successive councils have rejected it. So I think it was a mistake to to allow this process to happen.’

Matt Wood confirmed that previous councils had knocked back proposed developments on the site, while also choosing not to zone the land for environment protection purposes or ‘knock out the urban development potential’.

State of the environment

Cr Steve McCarthy said. ‘I get it that if there was no humans on the planet and Mother Nature took over, it’d be a lot more in front. I get it that there’s a history on this property. And I don’t get the flood section of it… I believe that engineering going forward with these guys, they would have a chance to be able to do something on that property.’

Ballina Cr Kiri Dicker. Photo David Lowe.

Cr Kiri Dicker spoke against deferring the matter for another twelve months, reminding councillors, ‘the week before last, our government released the State of the Environment report which showed increasing numbers of species being added to the threatened species list, and a dramatic decline in the populations of threatened species.

‘If we’re going to turn the ship around, we need to make bold and decisive decisions and this is one of them,’ she said.

After Cr Bruem’s amendment was lost, Ballina Council voted unanimously to support the original motion, to prepare a planning proposal to rezone the land adjoining Burns Point Ferry Road to C2 (Environmental Conservation) if further study confirmed that it contained vegetation with high biodiversity value.

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