Housing developments in historic forests threaten vulnerable koalas and rare birds

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By Merrill Witt

Last week, in a presentation to the Property Council, the newly appointed Minister for Planning, Rob Stokes, gave a surprisingly candid assessment of the NSW planning system. He said that “the culture of development that has grown up in this city has pitted in many ways supposedly avaricious developers against supposedly blinkered communities, with a hapless Department of Planning doing its best to try and mediate the culture of conflict.”

“Blinkered” is definitely not a descriptor that would sit well with the thousands of community members who are fighting to stop approval of two recent development proposals in Campbelltown and West Pennants Hills, respectively. As the 65 year old Appin resident and activist Sue Gay explained, “When I leave this Earth I want to leave it a better place for my grandchildren and future generations.”

Mrs Gay and hundreds of other local residents took the Campbelltown City Council to the Land and Environment Court to try to stop the rezoning from ‘scenic protected’ to low density residential of the historic Mount Gilead rural estate on the outskirts of Campbelltown. Unfortunately the case was lost and now Lendlease has filed a development application for a 424 home subdivision on the 209 hectare property – the first phase of a masterplan for 1,700 residences.

Protecting threatened species

Back in 1973, when Campbelltown was earmarked for development as a ‘satellite city’, the then NSW State Planning Authority placed a high priority on the protection of the scenic and rural/undeveloped hillscapes surrounding the town. The objective was to establish a green belt “to bring about a close relationship between town and country; and to balance growth needs with conservation of the special assets of history and landscape.”

Designating the Mount Gilead estate and surrounding properties as ‘scenic protected’ also turned out to be remarkably prescient in terms of protecting the local native wildlife. In the mid 1980s a thriving population of around 300 koalas was discovered in the area.

Almost equally as visionary as the establishment of the green belt around Campbelltown was IBM’s decision in the mid 1980s to create idyllic, park-like surrounds for its office campus on a 28 hectare site bordering the Cumberland State Forest in West Pennant Hills.

Now regarded as almost an extension of the neighbouring forest, the site is home to around 118 different kinds of birds including the Powerful Owl, which is classified in NSW as a “vulnerable threatened” species.

A few years back, property developer Mirvac acquired this iconic site. The Hills Shire Council is now moving forward with plans to rezone it for high and medium density residential development.

Mirvac’s development proposal for the site, which includes building 200 medium density townhouses on micro-lots and 400 apartments in buildings up to six storeys, has attracted over 3,500 objections, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph.

While the plans retain over 12 hectares as undeveloped land, the local community fears that such intensive development on the rest of the site will lead to environmental degradation and wildlife loss.

The Mount Gilead estate and old IBM site are just two recent examples of so-called spot rezonings or their near equivalents. Mr Stokes has identified spot rezoning as one of the main culprits for creating the “culture of conflict” between developers and affected communities. The process allows developers and/or councils to propose projects outside of the parameters of existing Local Environment Plans.

Symptom or cause?

But are spot rezonings a symptom, rather than the cause, of a larger problem about how the future of Sydney is being shaped?

In 2015, the NSW Government established the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC) as an independent agency responsible for overseeing planning and development across the metropolitan region. Its mandate is to work out where to put an additional 725,000 new homes to accommodate around 2 million extra people by 2036.

Consequently, ambitious ‘new housing’ targets are now being imposed on many local councils. The declaration of multiple “planned precincts” along rail corridors, for example, is also contributing to development pressures.

Unfortunately, seemingly lost in the development rush are the GSC’s noble environmental objectives, which include “protecting and enhancing bushland and biodiversity, protecting and enhancing scenic and cultural landscapes, increasing urban tree canopy cover and delivering Green Grid connections and high quality open space.”

Perhaps now is the time to revisit a 2010 call made by the Australian Conservation Foundation to review the link between Australia’s or, in this case, Sydney’s growing population and the loss of biodiversity? Hopefully, our politicians are not too blinkered by the view that a big Sydney is inevitable and worth the environmental cost.