Despite a comprehensive refusal of the development application (DA) for residential development at the Iron Gates at Evans Head last year by the Northern Regional Planning Panel (NRPP), the DA is still ‘live’ in the NSW Land & Environment Court (L&EC) following challenge by the developer, Graeme Ingles, to the NRPP decision. The DA is in its ninth year despite two independent assessments by planning experts who recommended refusal, and the wider community which roundly rejected the proposal.
The grounds for Ingles challenge to the decision were not made public and his decision came as a surprise to many members of the community because of major problems with the development and its isolated location including fire and flood risk and unresolved Remediations Orders from the Land & Environment Court from the 1990’s for earlier work undertaken by the developer, running to millions of dollars, which had not been done.
Not long after Ingles lodged his challenge to the NRPP decision in September last year under the development company Goldcoral Pty Ltd, the property was placed on the market for sale through ‘expressions of interest’ without a dollar value reserve price being available to the public although certain information suggested it was somewhere between $20 and 40 million dollars.
The property did not sell and was subsequently withdrawn from sale. However, Ingles continued with the challenge in the L&EC to the NRPP decision but his company Goldcoral Pty Ltd was put into ‘Administration’ and legal carriage of the case put into the hands of the well-known Sydney law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth who then pursued Ingles challenge to overturn the NRPP decision on behalf of an unnamed client to obtain a viable development application (DA).
Legal responsibility to ‘defend’ the NRPP decision then fell to Richmond Valley Council rather than the NRPP.
Community excluded from talks
Earlier this year a Conciliation Conference was called by the L&EC under Section 34 of the L&EC Act to try and expedite resolution of the case in keeping with the stated L&EC policy. A Commissioner was appointed to try and find a resolution and a hearing was held on site at the Iron Gates at Evans Head. Community members addressed the Commissioner at the invitation of Council’s solicitor Cecilia Rose in front of a phalanx of Corrs Chambers Westgarth representatives including their barrister and consultants to the Goldcoral project, and representatives from the Bandjalang community lead by Traditional Knowledge-Holder Simone Barker represented by solicitor Lily White. Once the community had given its testimony the hearing was adjourned and the parties relocated to the Iron Gates land for further conciliation talks. The community was excluded from these talks and was not informed of their outcome by Council’s solicitor.
Million dollar cost to community
Dr Richard Gates, one of the community representatives who spoke at the Conciliation Conference said it was disappointing that the community was excluded from further talks particularly given the millions of dollars the case had already cost the community in legal and other professional fees and charges. He highlighted that the community was deliberately kept in the dark because the community was not told what the grounds were for the challenge from the appellant nor the name of the client(s) who had taken over the case from Ingles other than that it was a particular Trust.
‘So here we are footing the bill both directly and indirectly through our rates and taxes and government charges, yet we are not allowed a seat at the table to hear deliberations about this important matter which begs the question: “why all the secrecy about a matter which is clearly in the public interest? And “why is Richmond Valley Council (RVC) not keeping us informed”?
Who is pushing the case?
‘The lawyers for the appellant were very tight-lipped about who they were ultimately representing and why they had put Ingles firm Goldcoral Pty Ltd into administration,’ said Dr Gates.
‘The problem was made worse by the fact that Richmond Valley Council’s solicitor did not let the community members, who made representation at the S34 Conciliation conference, know the outcome of the meeting. These members of the community were shut out of the proceedings of the L&EC and Richmond Valley Council’s deliberations in the matter.’
RVC refuse to discuss DA
Since the conciliation meeting earlier this year there have been further meetings with the L&EC and the parties involved in the matter but Richmond Valley Council’s solicitor has declined to provide responses to questions from the community. The RVC solicitors are making the argument that they are representing council and we are not their clients; despite representations made at the Section 34 Conciliation meeting through her auspices.
A spokesperson for Evans Head Residents for Sustainable Development Inc. said today that ‘as far as the association knew Richmond Valley Council has not been providing feedback to the community about what is happening with the case.
‘The community really needs to be kept in touch particularly given that the community still does not know what the grounds for the appeal are from the developer, and Council’s history of support for the development through proposed subsidy for development costs.
‘Those who attended the NRPP hearings at the Evans Head RSL will remember that the developer, Ingles, stated that he had been “invited to submit an application for Iron Gates residential development by former Richmond Valley Council General Manager John Walker” in 2014. Notwithstanding Council’s independent assessment of the development, which roundly rejected the proposal, there is still the problem of the enormous pressure from the State government for housing development to which council seems particularly responsive; even if it is on land which floods and has a high fire risk and other planning problems,’ said the spokesperson.
‘From information made available to us, including a recent call in the newspapers for further consultation about Aboriginal Cultural matters at the Iron Gates from the same consultant who provided reports previously to the developer, it looks as if the developer is seeking to proceed with an amended development application through some form of negotiation with RVC, adjudicated by the L&EC.
Lack of transparency
‘If that is the case, and an amended plan is accepted without the matter coming back to the community for comment or a new DA, then such an outcome raises serious questions about community trust and confidence in planning processes. This is particularly concerning when the details of the client(s) who is bringing the case are not known and the question of foreign ownership of the land, which was raised at the Section 34 Conciliation Consultation, is unresolved.
‘The “corporate veil” must be lifted and the community informed and RVC has an obligation to its residents and ratepayers to keep them in touch. How else can council be held to account if there is no transparency?’