Ballina shire councillors voted unanimously at a meeting last week to support a consultancy’s findings regarding suitability of land on Lennox Head for a new RFS station and preschool.
Councillors endorsed seven reasons from the council’s project management office for choosing the consultants’ advice over that of a technical assessment officer from the development services department.
The officer had reviewed the consultants’ environmental impact study of the proposed project at 9 Byron Bay Road, Lennox Head, reporting a difference in views in relation to endangered littoral rainforest.
Pressure to proceed with build
The council bought the site in 2018 to make way for an intersection, creating the opportunity for an RFS station and preschool, council staff noted.
Development consent on a temporary RFS shed being used there was due to expire in November, with the mayor saying previous suggestions of a shift to Ross Lane, notorious for being flooded and closed, would result in a loss of volunteers and other previously suggested sites had been found unsuitable.
The council hired a contractor in October last year to build a permanent RFS shed at 9 Byron Bay Rd, with staff noting the ‘successful tenderer’ had agreed not to terminate the contract ‘despite the delay’.
Meanwhile, councillors heard, operators of a community preschool elsewhere on Lennox Head were desperate for a second campus and loved the idea of being housed next to a fire station.
The state government had given the school $600,000 in 2019 towards a new campus, with the existing one at 21 Mackney Lane experiencing demand beyond capacity.
‘Our waiting list is huge,’ Lennox Head Community Preschool Nominated Supervisor Tara Leonard told councillors as part of her deputation to their meeting last week, ‘we’ve just completed our enrolments for next year and we still have 40 children who are eligible for preschool places by age who aren’t able to get a position’.
‘Our community is still growing and you can see that,’ Ms Leonard said, ‘Lennox Head Public School had to create a new divisive zone because they’re also at capacity while they wait for their new location’.
Ms Leonard said the school had enough funds to cover extra costs associated with the proposed build near the fire station at 9 Byron Bay Road but was at risk of losing the state funding ‘because of the delays’.
‘We’re also at risk of additional costs being incurred due to the increasing costs for materials and labor,’ Ms Leonard said, ‘the sooner we can undertake these capital works the better off’.
Peer and legal reviews support private consultant
The council hired Blackwood Ecological Services to report on biodiversity impact concerns raised and when supporting the findings in last week’s finance and facilities committee meeting, credited ‘a competent, experienced and properly briefed consultant’.
Another consultancy called Planit Consulting had peer-reviewed the Blackwood report, the project management office said, as well as ‘a specialist legal advisor’, both finding in favour of Blackwood’s report.
Public interest in a new RFS and pre-school was given as a reason for supporting Blackwood’s report over the council’s technical assessment officer, as well as a lack of ‘alternative site options’ for either project.
Appropriate mitigation measures to address environmental impacts were included in the report, councillors agreed, and the development would still have to comply with consent conditions.
Finally, councillors said when echoing the project management office, the council had a statutory requirement to provide the RFS shed.
Significant biodiversity impacts predicted
Councillors had also received a report from a council-employed technical assessment officer advising a ‘best case scenario’ of a 25% biodiversity impact of the proposed RFS shed and pre-school on the land in question.
The officer said while staff supported the council’s legal advice, it didn’t ‘definitively answer the question about the significance of the impact’ of the project because it was ‘a decision for the planning consent authority’.
‘Council’s development assessment staff are of the view that the development will likely result in a significant impact and therefore BDAR and analysis of SAII is necessary,’ the officer reported.
BDAR stood for Biodiversity Development Assessment Report and SAII stood for Serious and Irreversible Impacts on threatened species and/or communities.
Earlier, the officer had explained if the council found a development had an SAII, it ‘must refuse a development application’.
Accusations of omissions, inaccurate mapping, underestimate
Omissions in Blackwood’s study were highlighted in the officer’s report, which was carried out ‘in accordance with principles and definitions of the gazetted “Threatened Species Test of Significance Guidelines” as published by the then NSW and Office of Environment and Heritage’, the officer said.
The report found an ‘adjoining Lot 1’ parcel of land was excluded from Blackwood’s study and consultants failed to account for a new water main ‘to be installed in the rainforest’.
The adjoining land wasn’t council-owned nor technically part of the development proposal but in ecological terms represented part of the already fragmented littoral rainforest pocket.
‘The ecological assessment appears to inaccurately map the extent of the rainforest canopy,’ the officer said in a list of examples arguing Blackwood’s report on rainforest impacts was an ‘underestimate’.
The officer conceded under boring could be ‘suitable to avoid impacts’ of the water main.
But when the total ‘subject site’ was taken into account, as opposed to Blackwood’s ‘study area’, the council officer said, nearly half the land’s endangered rainforest would be removed.
Impacts of cut and fill required for driveway upgrades, new stormwater lines and a swale system weren’t properly considered in the Blackwood report, the officer said.
Threats to vulnerable macadamia tree ignored, council officer says
The most common tree at the site was the Tuckeroo tree, Blackwood said, which were regularly found as healthy ‘isolated trees’.
But the council’s officer said staff considered the focus on Tuckeroos ‘an incorrect way to conduct an impact assessment’.
The officer predicted a significant impact on the local population of a vulnerable plant species called the Macadamia tetraphylla, or rough shelled bush nut.
The question of the significance of the impact was critical, the officer said, as the decision set the pathway for addressing biodiversity under the council’s DA for the new RFS shed.
Blackwood said larger trees and small sapling wouldn’t be removed and fences would be put around other specimens for protection during construction, therefore impacts wouldn’t be significant.
But the council officer said endangered littoral rainforest that protected trees from salt laden winds would ‘become unviable’ owing to 49% of it being cleared, raising doubts over how long protected trees would survive.
Proposed water mains and a stormwater basin on the border or within the tree’s protection zone presented ‘a threat to the trees long-term health,’ the officer said.
Because the trees at 9 Byron Bay were so isolated from other trees in the region, the officer said, they would ‘become part of an urban setting where natural germination, regeneration and recruitment’ would ‘not be possible’.
The definition of required ‘active management’ of the vulnerable macadamia trees was unclear, the officer said, and ‘likely to be fruitless’ anyway.
The officer said threats to the trees could be avoided by ‘siting the fire station away from the threatened entities’.
Council staffer highlights council’s role as developer
The officer concluded findings by noting ‘initial assessment’ showed ‘a difference of view in relation to the littoral rainforest between Council’s assessment staff and the information provided by Blackwood Ecological Services’.
‘Overall, a consultant ecologist engaged by Council, as the development proponent, has concluded that the development will not result in a significant impact on the threatened species identified,’ the officer said.
‘Fundamentally, Council will need to decide if it accepts the advice provided by Blackwood Ecological Services or accepts the advice arising from the Council officer’s technical assessment.’
Mayor casts vote against more preschool site investigations
All councillors having noted the officer’s report, independent Councillors Eva Ramsey and Rodney Bruem won support from the two Greens’ councillors, Kiri Dicker and Simon Chate, to have staff investigate ‘any other sites’ for the Lennox Head Community Preschool, including Spoonbill Reserve at Skennars Head.
The councillors also wanted the RFS application to be amended to allow the fire station to go ahead with ‘minimal impact on the endangered ecologocial community’.
But with Crs Phillip Meehan and Nigel Buchanen absent from the meeting, voting was evenly split for and against the proposal, which was decided via a mayoral casting vote.
Independent Cr Jeff Johnson said he was against the council using public reserves as a last resort and would prefer the council bought more land.
Mayor Sharon Cadwallader used the vote to echo her previous vote against, saying the community had previously resisted the idea of building on Spoonbill Reserve and she didn’t want the community preschool to risk lose its government funding by searching for a new site.
‘The timing of the grant is of paramount importance,’ Cr Cadwallader said.
‘Fresh’ faces swayed by experience
Councillors then proceeded to vote on the initial staff recommendation to follow advice from Blackwood, as moved by Cr Johnson and seconded by independent Cr Eoin Johnston.
Councillors voted unanimously in support, with Crs Meehan and Buchanen absent.
‘I was sorry that Cr Ramsey’s motion didn’t get up, I appreciated that,’ Cr Bruem said, ‘she brought a fresh approach to this’.
‘However, I also appreciate the fact, Madame Chair, that it’s not often you and Cr Johnson are on the same page and look, experience counts,’ Cr Bruem said.
‘The council’s jumped through hoops on this for too long,’ he said, ‘so let’s get it happening’.
‘I can see why the kids would be excited about it, Fireman Sam right there next door, it’ll be great, let’s get this going.’
Cr Dicker repeated concerns about biodiversity while voting in support of the staff motion.
‘What a conundrum we’re in, really tricky,’ Cr Dicker said, ‘there is contention about whether the local occurrence of the littoral rainforest should apply to the entire area, being lot one and lot two, one of which we don’t own’.
‘It’s not uncommon to have fragments of this size,’ Cr Dicker said, ‘in fact, I think roughly a third of all of the occurrence of littoral rainforest is small fragments’.
The Greens councillor said it was frustrating to see the proposed site’s size and fragmented nature being used as a justification for ‘its eradication or removing part of it’.
‘I don’t think we’re going to get ourselves out of this environmental predicament that we’re in Australia-wide by using the same mindset and rationales that got us into this problem in the first place,’ Cr Dicker said.
Financial vs ecological risk
The Greens councillor questioned the council’s risk appetite.
‘What is our appetite for risk when it comes to biodiversity?’ she asked, ‘and I wonder whether it’s the same appetite for risk when it comes to our financial investments?’
Cr Dicker said if financial risk appetite was different, she thought councillors needed to be asking what that meant ‘moving forward’.
Cr Johnson, one of the more ‘experienced’ councillors referred to during debate, said he was sure the council could ‘make the offsets work’ and have ‘an overall better environmental outcome than having some isolated trees next to main roads surrounded by houses’.
The vote did not determine the final decision on whether or not designs for the RFS shed and preschool are approved, with the council technical assessment officer saying environmental law meant staff may yet be obliged to carry out further studies that could lead to restrictions on the project.
This article has been updated to correct quote attributions initially made to Cr Ramsey in the final two sections. The comments were from Cr Dicker.