Deputy Mayor Great Lakes Council, Len Roberts says, “The proposed rezoning of north Hawks Nest for conservation and development appears closer with council considering the way forward at its last strategic meeting.
The North Hawks Nest saga has been dragging on for over 15 years since the land was zoned for future urban development in the 1990’s.
The land identified was in the ownership of 15 landowners (or groups of landowners owning a particular landholding) including Karuah Local Aboriginal Land Council.
Various studies were undertaken and it appeared that the land was to be rezoned as conservation and handed to National Park.
This rightly was seen by most as land grab by stealth and accusations that various studies undertaken were fraudulent.
One of the studies claimed that it was high Emu habitat (threatened species on the coast) after an emu scat was purported to be found and therefore none of the land should be developed and all the land should be simply handed over to National Parks.
This claim crumpled after I revealed publicly, information given to me by a long long term resident, that there was indeed Emus in the National Park, but they were introduced to the park in the 1980’s from out west.
They multiplied and became a nuisance and all were eventually shot by NP rangers.
This information, coupled with claims of fraud by prominent scientist Dr Graeme Wells and others led to council calling for an investigation. The State Government ordered a public inquiry into the matter in the early 2000’s.
The inquiry acknowledged that some of the studies were deficient (stopped short of calling it fraud) and with an expert panel of scientists, ecologists (including Dr Wells) representing government departments and landholders came up with a planning outcome that allowed for conservation and development.
In order for development to go ahead land as a conservation offset was to be dedicated to National Parks.
Whilst Dr Wells generally accepted the outcome, he was still (and rightly so) upset that his scientific reputation may have been damaged as he had been the main “whistleblower” regarding the deficient and incorrect studies and that no punitive action was taken against the authors of those deficient studies.
Unfortunately, that is water under the bridge and whilst I feel for Dr Wells, it is time to move on and realise the benefits of rezoning Nth Hawks Nest.
In the meantime, the council, and for most part the landowners and the overall community were satisfied with the plan. A developer entered into agreements with the landowners to develop the land and all appeared on track until the GFC and the developer was unable to proceed.
For the last few years the matter has been sitting waiting for the Department of Planning to sign off as soon as the offset arrangements could be finalised.
Last year Council was advised that NP no longer wanted the offset land and therefore the whole plan looked sunk and everyone would have to start again from scratch.
The Department of planning kept the plan alive and asked council to come up with a way to ensure the development and conservation of the land in perpetuity.
Since that time according to notes from council staff:
The landowners have continued to meet and there have been meetings between staff and the landowners. They have prepared a draft Memorandum of Understanding to indicate they will work corroboratively to progress the rezoning.
The Office of Environment and Heritage has formally advised that, for resourcing reasons, they are unable to accept the offset land.
A letter was sent to, and a meeting was held between staff and Kate Washington, Member for Port Stephens on 16 July 2015.
The purpose of the letter and meeting was to establish the government’s formal position on the acceptance of the offset land. No response has been received from Ms Washington.
Council staff met with the Department of Planning and Environment and the Office of Environment and Heritage on four (4) occasions since February 2015 to discuss how to progress the rezoning. At the meetings it was made clear that Council strongly supports the rezoning of the area.
Council has kept the Department informed on the progress with the rezoning.
Some of the landowners have now submitted a proposal for staging of the development and dedication of the offset area.
Council at its last strategic meeting resolved to accept the offset land and write to the landowners advising them that it was now possible to proceed to the finalisation of the rezoning and were they still interested in being involved. Staff will report back to council within six weeks outlining hopefully the final steps for rezoning.