The Ballina Shire Council voted this week to start selling off parcels of land on the Alstonville Plateau, with staff revealing unprecedented debt for commercial property activities.
Land on the plateau had featured in several council meeting agendas in months leading up to the vote, thanks to a move by staff and some councillors to have 23 hectares of State Significant Farmland [SSF] considered for future development.
A spokesperson for an unidentified surgeon in Sydney told October’s ordinary meeting his client wanted to invest in construction of a new private hospital on the land.
But the surgeon hadn’t made any formal application and the state’s Department of Industry and Environment [DPIE] later confirmed it wouldn’t be approving the SSF’s addition to a list of Strategic Urban Growth Areas [SUGAs] without the council having carried out more studies and community consultation.
Details of commercial interest in public land ‘not in public interest’, says Ballina council GM
The SSF was next to the Russellton Industrial Estate, which featured council-owned land lots, and eight hectares of undeveloped council land that the mayor said would probably be used for a water treatment plant [WTP] under plans from the Rous County Council.
The mayor told October’s ordinary meeting she understood the council’s commercial services committee [CSC] would be receiving plans for the WTP but such plans were yet to be publicly revealed at close of the council’s CSC meeting in mid-November.
The committee retreated to a confidential session during the meeting, with councillors later voting unanimously to accept recommendations made in the session to sell three parcels of council-owned land in the Russellton Industrial Estate.
General Manager Paul Hickey said confidentiality was legally required.
Discussion of the matter in an open meeting wasn’t considered to be in the public interest ‘due to the ongoing commercial negotiations’, agenda notes showed.
Council budget overspends drive land sell-off
The notes showed an unidentified party had approached the council wanting to ‘prepurchase’ three of the council’s land lots, with details of the proposal restricted to a confidential attached report.
Independent Councillor Rodney Bruem later moved, with support from Cr Stephen McCarthy, for the council to authorise the GM to finalise negotiations for the sale of Lots 17, 18 and 28.
Councillors had already agreed to support a staff recommendation to sub-divide Lot 21 DP 1252162, being council-owned land at the Russellton Industrial Estate, into 27 serviced industrial lots ready to sell and one public reserve.
Staff notes showed advice that council investment in land services would likely be financially viable given market demand for industrial land and that the council needed to sell land assets to repay debt incurred for council projects that had gone over budget.
Airport, industrial and urban development leave council in debt
‘Council now has a significant loan debt in respect to its commercial property activities and the repayment of that debt is dependent on the timing of future land sales,’ agenda notes showed.
A Commercial Property Loan Register and Repayments table of figures showed the council was borrowing nearly $17.5 million to fund upgrades at the Ballina-Byron Gateway Airport, the Southern Cross Industrial Estate and for Stage 3 of its Wollongbar Urban Expansion Areas [WUEA].
Elsewhere in the agenda, staff noted the council had ‘never previously borrowed for property development activities’ and would probably need to borrow more to fund the Russellton Industrial Estate’s sub-division.
All Councillors voted unanimously for Cr Bruem’s motion except for Cr Phillip Meehan, who was absent.
Cr Bruem also moved, with Independent Cr Nigel Buchanan seconding, for the council to auction off Lot 15.
Independent Cr Eoin Johnston was the only councillor to vote against the motion, with Cr Meehan absent.