Iron Gates is an approximately 50 hectare site at Evans Head that has been subject to proposed development applications (DAs) since the 1980s. The local community has repeatedly highlighted the flood and fire risks of the site as well as held developer Graham Ingles to account for illegal clearing of the site through the courts.
The site is once again back in the Land and Environment Court (L&EC) for a Section 34 Conciliation Conference following the rejection of a DA by the Northern Regional Planning Panel (NRPP)on 7 September, 2022 that highlighted two independent reports stating that the DA should be refused. The conciliation conference was convened at the Iron Gates property at Evans Head on Monday morning (6 March, 2023) to consider the decision of the NRRP to refuse the DA from Goldcoral Pty Ltd for residential development on the property.
The conference was attended by staff of Richmond Valley Council and Council’s solicitor, Simone Barker from Bandjalang Traditional Owners and members of her family, represented by her solicitor. There was also a large phalanx of legal representatives and experts hired by the appellants Goldcoral Pty Ltd (in external administration), a substantial number of residents opposed to the development, and L&EC Commissioner Michael Chilcott who presided over the conference.
The commissioner indicated that he had only come to the file last Thursday.
Six locals addressed the commissioner
Dr Richard Gates from Evans Head Residents for Sustainable Development Incorporated said that he found it ‘passing strange’ that he should be addressing a conciliation conference of the L&EC having not been told what the grounds for the appeal from Goldcoral Pty Ltd were. He said that nonetheless, any matter involving proposed residential development at the Iron Gates site demanded comment so that the court was very clear that residential development was not welcome and that should it proceed, it would knowingly put people in ‘harm’s way’. He said that the land should be rezoned to a more environmentally-sensitive zoning in keeping with its character, something the community has been asking for for many years.
Dr Gates also said that he found it difficult to reconcile the fact that land along the Woodburn-Evans Head Road had been recommended for removal from residential development status in Richmond Valley Council’s draft Growth Management Strategy, while almost identical land to the south of it, the Iron Gates site, was still included for a large residential development.
Dr Gates also covered fire and flood risks for the Iron Gates site pointing out from his own experience as a volunteer firefighter, as well as chair of an advisory committee involved in fire plans for National Parks, and park ranger and planner in Canada, that it was difficult to understand how the RFS had given approval for residential development on the site. Dr Gates queried their assessment processes, particularly in view of climate changes now upon us.
He pointed out that the land is also subject to serious flooding: ‘why else would the developer dig two huge canals hundreds of metres long?’ Dr Gates also reminded the commissioner that the 2014 flood planning maps are incorrect and two of the three are missing from the assessment process.
Dr Gates highlighted that the NRPP was in error drawing the conclusion that ‘much of the land proposed for development’ was zoned R1 Residential when measurement showed that it was approximately 40 per cent with most of the rest being of environmental (see image).
Commissioner Chilcott also heard about many other issues of concern from the community including impact on the koala population from Maria Matthes, Aboriginal cultural landscape integrity matters and history from Jocelyn Reese from the Bundjalung Nation and Elaine Saunders from Evans Head Residents for Sustainable Development. Ms Saunders also included information about the 1895 destruction of the land bridge at Iron Gates which joined the north and south sides of the Evans River together allowing passage of the Aboriginal Nation for important cultural practices.
Dr Peter Ashley spoke particularly to the status of the Iron Gates Road, built illegally across wetlands to get to the property, and for which Richmond Valley Council claims no responsibility, and the matter of who the appellants were in the conciliation meeting, which is not known to the public. He asked whether the court might be interested to know who it was as there was information ‘on the street’ that it was foreign-owned. Ian Rankin spoke on the impact of the development on the local community and its infrastructure and the isolated nature of the community. There was no support for the development from any of the speakers.
Once the six speakers were heard by the commissioner, the meeting was adjourned and all the parties, except for the public, moved to the Iron Gates property where the conciliation process continued. The commissioner indicated that once the site visit was completed the parties would reconvene at the Casino Council Chambers but that the public was excluded. The outcome of the conciliation process would be provided by Council’s solicitor.
Effect of money and power on display
Dr Gates said that it was interesting to observe just how many people Goldcoral Pty Ltd had rolled up for the conciliation. Such a large contingent suggested money and power. ‘I expect they would be collecting information about what the community had to say. Hopefully they got the message that the Iron Gates development was not wanted and was dangerous.’
Dr Gates said that he expected that the case for appeal would go beyond the Section 34 conciliation process to the court itself and that those who gave evidence ast today’s conference could well end up giving evidence in court.