Council refuses DA for Swan Bay ‘transitional group home’

An aerial view of the Fisherman’s Village at Swan Bay. Photo: Australian Rural.

BEFORE a full house at Port Stephens Council Chambers on Tuesday 11 April, councillors voted to refuse a Development Application (DA) seeking to change the usage of a tourist facility in Swan Bay to a ‘transitional group home’.

Part of the facility at 2 Old Punt Road, Swan Bay, known as the Fisherman’s Village, has for the past ten years been used as a drug and alcohol treatment centre, operated by Connect Global Limited.

29 of the 39 on-site cabins are currently utilised for Connect Global purposes, however the facility is not zoned for this use, with the ten remaining cabins used for tourism purposes.

A report prepared for Councillors by Steven Peart, Group Manager of Development Services at Port Stephens Council, recommended the DA be refused on the basis of a number of social impacts and land use conflicts.

“The proposed development fails to satisfy Clause 2.3 (zone objectives) as it is likely to detract from existing tourist and visitor-oriented land uses,” the report stated.

“The proposed development is incompatible with surrounding land uses, resulting in adverse social impacts.

“The proposed development is not considered to be suitable for the site.

“The proposed development is not considered to be in the public interest as the development is likely to create a land use conflict, cause adverse social impact on the surrounding land uses and received substantial opposition from the community.”

Stephen Leathley, a town planner with 35 years experience, spoke for Connect Global during public access, arguing that while the Fisherman’s Village was zoned for tourism in the nineties, it was no longer used for that purpose.

“The council report before you recommends refusal,” Mr Leathley said.

“That refusal is based around land use conflict or incompatibility of locating a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre in a tourist village or tourist resort.

“However, there is an important distinction here.

“This facility was abandoned some 25 years ago in 1998 when the RAAF started flying F/A-18s over it.

“This Council was involved in a very lengthy and costly court case in relation to that.

“That Supreme Court case made the finding that this facility was not suitable as a tourist resort.”

Mr Leathley then asked councillors to defer the matter and consider “granting a two year, time limited approval” to Connect Global.

“Give Mr Pene (Connect Global Director) an opportunity to work with the community.

“We would do public consultations during that process, drop-in sessions, so that the community that does have some concerns can come out and have a look at it over that two year period.

“It also gives us the time to acquire the other nine cabins we believe we can get a hold of if we have that time.”

Worimi Elder Uncle Lenny Anderson then addressed Council on behalf of Connect Global, citing the program’s high success rate.

“91.23 percent of Aboriginal people who have been through this program in the past ten years have not reoffended,” Mr Anderson said.

“I have been there, I have seen it.”

Mr Anderson then spoke of the Fisherman Village’s “geographically isolated” position, citing benefits for Indigenous program participants, five of whom are reportedly currently undertaking treatment at Connect Global.

“Please don’t stop the program.

“This program will only benefit the community, not be detrimental.”

Cr Giacomo Arnott, performing the duties of Acting Mayor in Ryan Palmer’s absence, asked Mr Anderson if there was another suitable site for the program in Port Stephens which would avoid the current land conflicts.

“It will not be the same,” Mr Anderson said.

“If it leaves that area there it will not have the same effect for Aboriginal people, the clients or the people who have been sentenced there.

“That is the best, most peaceful area that you could want or need.”

Swan Bay residents Diane and Stanley Wollen, who have lived in the area for 25 years, then addressed councillors, citing traffic concerns and social issues they believe have arisen as a result of Connect Global running their program locally.

“The motorbikes and groups of walking men, plus the increased police visiting the area was starting to unnerve us, when we learned that all of this activity was due to an unapproved rehabilitation facility being established at the former oyster barn in Fisherman’s Village,” Stanley said.

By this point in the meeting, Cr Arnott had reminded meeting attendees several times to be respectful of speakers, with strong contingents of Connect Global supporters and objectors in attendance.

Diane then spoke of the intimidation she claims members of the community have experienced as a result of speaking out against the rehabilitation centre; a comment which received a boisterous response from meeting attendees.

“Our neighbours, who have also lived there (Swan Bay) for a long time, many of whom are elderly and have health issues, would have come tonight if they hadn’t been so terrified of these people,” Diane said.

“They are too scared to come out of their homes and complain.”

Fisherman’s Village cabin owner Michelle Shetab, a vocal opposition to the Connect Global usage of the Swan Bay site for several years, also provided councillors with her thoughts.

“Are the courts and the magistrates that send these men to Fisherman’s Village aware that the Fisherman’s Village is a Council approved tourism facility only, and that these men mix freely with families and children on site?

“Fisherman’s village is not a Council approved rehab and not a Council approved transitional group home.

“Councillors, your staff have had the courage in outlining the problems with this DA and you have a duty to do what is right and support the community protests by voting to reject the DA.

“Let me be very clear, a family tourist village, or anywhere that has families and children attending is not an appropriate site,” Ms Shetab said.

After a last-minute reshuffle of agenda items prolonged the decision for the tense crowd, it was time for Councillors to vote, with Cr Arnott announcing he would be supporting the refusal of the DA in line with the staff recommendation.

“I understand the position of the proponent.

“I understand especially the position put forward by people talking about the work that occurs at this facility, but for me, when we are assessing Development Applications we are bound to follow the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act.

“That means we need to consider only planning matters when considering a DA.”

Cr Glen Dunkley then proposed that Council defer the decision to allow investigation of a limited time consent to find an alternative location for the facility, which was supported by Cr Steve Tucker.

“I think this is a good program and I would like to see it continue,” Cr Tucker said.

“I would like to give these guys some time to either find a new location or to come to an arrangement with the owners of the remaining units.”

Cr Tucker then enquired to Council’s Development Services staff as to the compliance protocol of ceasing rehabilitation centre activities if the DA was refused.

“If it gets refused this evening, there is currently active compliance action that is being undertaken against the use at the location,” Group Manager Development Services Steven Peart said.

“That compliance action has essentially been on pause for a little while, pending a decision, so if it was refused tonight, that compliance action would be picked up and continued.”

Cr Tucker and Cr Dunkley then voted in favour of the amendment to defer the decision on the DA, with Crs Arnott, Anderson, Francis and Wells voting against.

“We did hear from Council staff in our briefings that a limited time consent would basically allow the issues raised in the independent Social Impact Statement to continue occurring for a period of two years,” Cr Arnott said.

Councillors Arnott, Anderson, Francis and Wells then voted to refuse the DA, with Crs Tucker and Dunkley voting against.

Councillors Kafer and Bailey abstained from voting, while Mayor Palmer and Cr Doohan were absent.

Following the meeting, Connect Global director Ross Pene said he was “disappointed with the Council decision”.

“We have been operating an important community facility out here at Swan Bay for the last ten years that has reformed the lives of many men.

“It has turned them away from a life of crime, drugs and alcohol.

“We have saved the lives of families’ sons, husbands and fathers.

“We have turned these men into contributing members of society.

“It is therefore extremely disappointing that Council has been unable to see through the deceit from the primary objectors and have instead become party to it.

“We operated out here for eight years before a new owner bought in at Fisherman’s Village knowing full well that we were operating a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility, and that individual then started raising objections and stirring up some people in the local community, and it wasn’t until that point did we start having issues with Port Stephens Council.”

Mr Rene told News Of The Area that when Connect Global began utilising the Fisherman’s Village for rehabilitation purposes, it was not in use as a tourist facility.

“It is significant to note that Port Stephens Council lost a major court case over this site that went to the Court of appeal in 2005, and that case ended up costing the Council and the ratepayers upwards of $10m.

“The Court found that due to the RAAF FA-18 noise impacts, the Fisherman’s Village tourist resort facility was not capable of operating on a commercial basis as a tourist resort and that Council should never have approved it.

“It actually ceased trading in 1998, so there has been no tourist accommodation on this site for 25 years and anyone that is familiar with this area knows that to be a fact.

“We were introduced to the site on the basis that it was essentially an abandoned tourist resort, so this was a change of use of the facility,” he said.

“Instead of providing temporary accommodation and activities and programs for tourists, we are providing essentially the same – accommodation and programs, to individuals who want to turn their lives around from drugs and alcohol.

“But that did not stop the Labor Deputy Mayor Giacomo Arnott and his Labor colleagues voting on bloc to refuse the DA based on what they say is land use conflict between tourist accommodation and a drug and rehabilitation facility.”

Mr Pene described Tuesday’s Council meeting proceedings as like “watching ostriches stick their heads in the sand”.

“If Fisherman’s Village was actually providing tourist accommodation, of course we would not have set up here in the first place.

“But that is not what is happening here, there is no tourist accommodation being provided and Councillor Giacomo Arnott and his Labor colleagues did not want to hear anything about that.”

Since the meeting, Connect Global has indicated it will appeal the Council’s decision.

“We now have no options but to appeal,” Mr Pene said, “and that just means more waste of ratepayers’ money, and money we could be allocating to our work.

“Our compromise of Council granting a two year time limited consent was only supported by Councillors Dunkley and Tucker, whom we thank for their support, but the Labor Councillors were not interested.

“It will simply divert our focus and resources away from our important work while we fight through a court process to get this facility approved, a facility that is supported by many people in the community, many businesses, the Aboriginal community and the legal fraternity, but not Port Stephens Council.”


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