Sacrificing Wamboin/Bywong & rail trail for majority vote?
COMMENT by Maria Taylor.
AT THE 13 December council meeting a mutually agreeable voting alliance between Team Overall (with four votes) and two councillors who gained seats from Palerang became about as transparent as suspected backroom deals will allow.
As Councillor Peter Marshall said after a shock rejection of the staff recommendation to proceed with a required merger of the two local environment plans (LEPs) without messing with Wamboin and Bywong’s zoning: “The ruling block has spoken”. To which the Mayor solemnly replied: “There is no ruling block here”. And Marshall countered “well stop all voting together then”.
At this meeting the standoff between the ‘ruling block’ and the five other councillors revolved around two issues of wider public interest.
No rail trail here
Firstly, a rescission motion was on the December agenda overturning the November meeting’s majority vote to refuse council assistance for a rural landholder survey along the route of the proposed Molonglo rail trail. To understand that vote, one has to know that the proposed rail trail route on state-owned land goes through a property owned by former Palerang councillor and now Deputy Mayor Trevor Hicks. Hicks has long professed his opposition to a rail trail.
At the November meeting Team Overall’s Trudy Taylor tabled a surprise motion to knock back the landholder survey. The motion’s language implied that the council was rejecting the whole rail trail proposal without even waiting for a business plan. Hicks had to excuse himself at both the November and December council votes on this matter.
But not to worry, Mayor Overall – going against previous professed enthusiasm for the rail trail and council’s own tourism strategy where rail trail recreation is high on the agenda – used his casting vote to give Hicks what he wants. He repeated that casting vote at the December meeting.
And let us reassess Wamboin/Bywong purpose
Hicks, who has a business in Queanbeyan and lives near Captains Flat, and Councillor Mark Schweikert, who resides in the suburbs of Bungendore and headed the Liberal’s council ticket, then turned to the pro forma merging of the LEPs to insert their own vision and values on the zoning of Wamboin and Bywong.
In the background is a never-say-die lobbying effort spearheaded by Bywong landholder Michael Cramsie (who, along with another anti-E4 protester, was on Hicks’ council ticket), to do away with the dreaded E4 (environmental living) designation for rural residential living. But, according to Hicks’ motion, it’s enough to change the zoning in Wamboin and Bywong, where these people happen to live, in favour of something, well, more development friendly.
As Trevor Hicks revealed to the assembled councillors, “fear of development is why we have E4.” Aha.
And Mark Schweikert chimed in to say he had never, sitting on Palerang Council, heard anyone testify in support of E4, presumably having been asleep or absent when a swag of speakers at two extraordinary meetings defended Palerang council’s zoning choice for the area. Palerang also received a petition with scores of reasons why people were happy with the E4 assessment of the land use capability.
That includes natural environment considerations – not least the landscape’s ability to absorb human impact including water use and waste disposal – as well as roads and traffic impacts on resident amenity and the council budget.
In addition density and siting of development in the rural residential zone was set to conserve bushland, wetlands and wildlife corridors while allowing grazing and some cropping. The state of NSW coined the term Environmental Living E4 and it is widely applied for rural residential areas.
Again Mayor Overall and his team came to the voting rescue to reach a majority. They knocked back the staff recommendation to just merge the LEPs and not interfere with the zoning of Bywong and Wamboin. Curiously, they voted thus despite Queanbeyan’s own LEP, gazetted in 2014 as was Palerang’s.
The Queanbeyan LEP covers parts of Carwoola, Burra and Royalla and has exactly the same E4 uses and protections stemming from the earlier Yarrowlumla Council carve-up of lands for their optimal use and capability. (There are other rural and village zones aimed at more intensive farming or small block subdivision based on landscape capability or closeness to urban amenities.)
The Mayor and his team apparently decided it’s in their interest to support reassessing only Bywong and Wamboin for more intensive development – counter to staff advice, the risk of administrative confusion and rational argument.
One can but ask why.
Meeting ignored community voices, claimed mandate
The council meeting was also notable for ignoring on-the-spot community input regarding both the rail trail and E4, prior to councillor discussion. The gallery noted that no community voices spoke up either against the rail trail or in favour of interfering with the E4 zoning.
Those who did speak (including this reporter speaking as a resident about the alt-fact, anti-E4 campaign that Palerang endured) supported the expert recommendations of staff on this matter. Others reminded councillors of their own council’s program support for a rail trail to boost tourism and the local economy.
Brushing all this aside, Schweikert asserted that he and Hicks have a “mandate” based on the election results in the affected areas. Their claimed mandate is to upend a long-settled zoning decision that affects other people’s neighbourhoods and amenity.
A quick look at the booth-by-booth first preference returns (still available on the electoral commission website) calls that into question. It appears that both Schweikert’s Liberal Party ticket and Hicks – as a former Palerang councillor with a Queanbeyan business – got the overwhelming majority of their votes from Queanbeyan booths including Jerra and Googong.
They both lagged significantly behind former Palerang Mayor Pete Harrison (who resides in Wamboin) and former Palerang and Greens Councillor Peter Marshall in identified rural residential booths, Wamboin, Burra, Sutton. Hicks and Schweikert fared better in Bungendore and Queanbeyan booths, some of which would reflect surrounding rural residential (eg Carwoola or Wamboin/Bywong). However, those booth numbers cannot be parsed, and the demographics say the preponderance would be village and town votes not focused on rural residential issues or whether to survey a rail trail corridor.
The new year will show where all this is heading. Stay tuned.