Ratepayers would underwrite a long-running personal campaign
By Maria Taylor with ‘Council Watch’.
CASH-STRAPPED QUEANBEYAN-Palerang Regional Council (QPRC) is proposing to spend up to $150,000 on a consultancy for a councillor-driven bid to re-assign Palerang rural residential zoning to a more development-friendly designation. This is despite a staff recommendation against the idea and two previous rejections by the NSW Minister. So what’s going on?
Residents will recall the recent long process of updating Local Environmental Plans (LEPs). LEPS apply standard zoning codes of allowable activities. New zone names were required by NSW Planning to be applied in the revised LEP process. In the case of former Palerang Council, this involved a mandatory zone name change for rural residential areas to something on the state’s list of options. The same applied to the small amount of rural residential land overseen by Queanbeyan Council.
Palerang adopted E4 (Environmental Living) as the most fitting description from the state’s options for its rural residential areas including Wamboin, Bywong, Burra, parts of Carwoola and Royalla – as did Queanbeyan for The Ridgeway, Greenleigh and its sections of Carwoola and Royalla.
In the Bywong/Wamboin district, a small but loud and persistent group of landholders fiercely opposed the change, arguing that the new zoning dictated environmental restrictions on their activities that the former rural residential designation YLEP 1(d) did not have. The rural residential part of the Queanbeyan Council jurisdiction also changed to E4 and no-one protested. Comparing permitted activities and restrictions before and after the name change did not bear out the claims of the anti-E4 folk. Some cynical people suspected the words ‘environmental protection’ in the zone name description was the sticking point.
What’s in a name here but not there?
The opponents of E4 proposed that only Bywong and Wamboin be re-assessed and rebadged as either R5 a village extension zone, or RU4 a small-lot agricultural zone. More housing subdivision or changed on-block activities (for example a move to allow piggeries in RU4) could be the outcome.
After being knocked back twice in lobbying to NSW ministers for their preferred zones, the protesting Bywong landholders decided to campaign locally instead. Following amalgamation, it is believed that they first persuaded Administrator Tim Overall to review the matter.
During the 2017 local government election, they ramped up their campaign, with two of the leaders joining Trevor Hicks’ team for council. Hicks and the team pledged to overturn the zoning classification if elected. (It might be noted that the majority of Hicks’ council election votes did not come from the rural residential communities.)
During the campaign and since, former Palerang mayor Pete Harrison, a resident of Wamboin (now an Independent on the merged council) noted the issue was first raised ten years ago; that there was extensive consultation with state planning authorities during the six year period of the Palerang LEP construction; and that it was unlikely that the NSW Government would now decide the use of the E4 zone was inappropriate based on the desires of a handful of landholders. Two ministerial reviews were also conducted in response to the protesters. Every review concluded that the E4 zone had been applied appropriately.
The making of a majority and staff position on E4
Hicks won a seat on QPRC council. Thereafter he was nominated by interim Administrator now Mayor Tim Overall and elected Deputy Mayor. His vote is crucial to the governing majority led by Overall.
At the new council’s Planning and Strategy Committee meeting in December 2017, staff presented a negative assessment of the idea to change E4 zoning. Why staff had already looked at this issue appears to be due to direction from Overall as Administrator before the new council was seated. But staff was about to be overruled.
The staff report noted that, according to the latest Census, most people living in Bywong and Wamboin did not list their occupations as being in agriculture, forestry or fishing.
Staff recommended that the E4 zoning in Bywong and Wamboin stand noting:
“It has been determined that the primary land use for the last two years has been rural residential. However, given the combination of the primary land use being rural residential and the natural assets, some of which are high value as shown in the maps within the report, it is concluded that the lots in the localities of Bywong and Wamboin best fit the objectives of the E4 Environmental Living land use zone which is recommended to be generally retained.”
Remnant bush areas and regional wildlife corridors, some creeks and waterways, are part of what is considered special or ‘high value’ ecological assets.
How the votes divided
At that December 2017 meeting, Councillors Pete Harrison and Brian Brown moved to accept the staff report: ie proceed no further with another E4 review. They were supported by Councillors Marshall, Noveska and Winchester. But in a contrary motion Councillors Hicks and Schweikert moved that only Wamboin and Bywong of the rural residential zones be assessed for change to R5 or RU4 status. Remember the anti-E4 voices hail chiefly from Bywong. This won the day with the help of the Overall team.
The voting on the issue divided along the lines now familiar for QPRC council: the disciplined Overall council team that includes Biscotti, Bray and Taylor, joined by the Liberal Party councillor Mark Schweikert and his frequent ally on old Palerang Council, Hicks. Together they enjoy a majority. On the other side of this and other issues are the five declared Labor, Green and Independent councillors.
Nine months later: moving on a political stunt?
At the council’s August 2018 planning meeting, staff reported on the outcome of correspondence with the NSW Department of Planning and Environment. The department stated: “any study provided in support of the [rezoning] proposal should include sufficient information to justify the rezoning on a site-by-site basis”. It is unclear what “site-by-site” means whether lot-by-lot or area-by-area. Staff said one of the key tests the department would apply is that any rezoning must not reduce the environmental protection standards that apply to the land, and noted: “This is a challenging task … and will require considerable work”.
Begging off that additional workload, staff recommended council seek quotations from suitably qualified consultants. The attached budget would be up to $150,000. Again led by Hicks and Schweikert, the council majority voted to seek expressions of interest and review the results at the October council meeting.
Mayor Overall reportedly ended that day’s discussion with a forceful promise that he would demand a rural residential zone from the state as if there wasn’t one, and used his casting vote for the majority (Bray being absent).
The Bulletin asked where the money would come from and a council spokesperson said it would come from Council’s Land Use Planning budget.
Informally, councillors opposed to the whole exercise commented that land planning is simply part of general revenue. They also said the review proposal was a complete waste of money and a political stunt at ratepayer expense.
If the consultant review did recommend a change to the zoning, the necessary work would likely not be completed in time for inclusion in the current merger of the LEPs, say staff, requiring a separate planning process – more cost and a piecemeal approach to zoning that a Comprehensive LEP is designed to avoid.
What’s behind the push?
It depends on whom you ask. It’s either a misunderstanding about permitted land uses under E4 – ignoring that it’s basically the same as the previous designation of YLEP 1(d) which actually had more restrictive language over rural residential activities; or it’s an objection to be seen living in a zone described as valuing environmental protection; or, a desire for more intensive agricultural activities and/or more residential development freedom.
Full disclosure: Bulletin editor Maria Taylor is a Bywong resident. During recent years she has reported on the community controversy arising from claims made by anti-E4 campaigners and their political supporters. She has researched the evidence and presenting corrected facts. All the evidence indicates the QPRC staff report got it right.
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