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Grazing rights, chinese whispers & local planning

by Maria Taylor

In early March an anonymous notice landed in the mailboxes of Wamboin and Bywong residents. “Should you be worried?” it asked.

“Council intends to exercise some control over grazing (horses, cattle, alpacas, etc).  You currently don’t need consent to do that.”

The reference was to the draft Palerang Local Environment Plan (PLEP) out for public comment. The letter also implied council was on a stealth mission. “Council proposes to change your land zoning from rural residential (1d) to a new zone called Environmental Living E4 with the possibility of detrimental consequences”.

The letter urged its readers to come to a meeting at the Bywong hall to find out if they should be worried.  The meeting drew about 100 duly worried and angry residents, (with numbers growing with later retelling).

It was chaired by Bywong landholder Keith Gascoine and featured a short presentation by another local landholder Mike Cramsie, expressing doubts that an existing or new landholder could graze animals in the E4 zone.

Palerang Mayor Pete Harrison was at the meeting to explain that the fear was unfounded.  Council was not removing people’s grazing rights as a result of the E4 zoning in the new PLEP, he said. Nothing would change for the residents from their current situation.

The subtext for some, said Harrison and others who were at the meeting, appeared to be a distaste for the word ‘environmental’ (as in ‘environmental living’ or Palerang Local Environment Plan). There was some passion in this discussion with one resident heatedly vowing not to be dictated to by tofu eaters with hairy armpits.

Lost in translation

Some of the angst might have been avoided with a thorough reading of the council fact sheet attached to the letterbox drop. The fact sheet aims to translate the meaning of legal definitions for zones and land uses set by the NSW planning department. Undoubtedly the fact sheet could have been organised more understandably because the legalities are layered. (This is the definition, here are the exceptions a page or two later).

Nevertheless, it states clearly under ‘what does this mean for properties currently grazing stock?’ that those in the rural residential areas have ‘existing use rights’ and can continue whatever they were doing before in terms of animal husbandry.

Even more to the point for ongoing rights (including under subdivision), it also says the main use of the land in the E4 zone is for residential dwelling and this comes with ongoing related rights, summed up as mainly hobby farming or grazing, just as carried out currently.

As for the name change from the former rural residential (1d) land to E4 Environmental Living, councillors and staff explain that it was the closest match of the allowable categories.

For rural residential land, councillors had the choice of village, large lot residential (like Old Elmslea in Bungendore), primary production small lots which is agricultural, and the environmental living designation –– which aims for rural residential, with small-scale grazing etc compatible with the land carrying capacity, while maintaining environmental or aesthetic values.

Corridors of green both natural and man-made

In regard to concerns some people have about wildlife corridors and environmental values, Pete Harrison and others have made the case that much positive ‘environmental living’ whether in Bywong/Wamboin or Burra or Carwoola has been created by the tree planting and other aesthetic improvements of the current residents.

Council’s Director of Planning and Environmental Services John Wright says that NSW department of environment maps show there is a regional wildlife corridor that goes through western Palerang.

“Wildlife corridors were identified in the ACT & Sub-region Planning Strategy which was adopted by the Commonwealth, NSW and ACT Governments and the councils in 1998.

“It’s not a matter of asking people to have a corridor on their property”, he said.  “The corridor is already there because land management practices have led to the vegetation that forms the corridor being on their land.” Under the draft PLEP a consent authority must consider whether a new development has any adverse impact on connecting habitat.

What is ‘extensive agriculture’?

Not helping the confusion, the E4 zone designation doesn’t directly talk about grazing except under its definition of ‘extensive agriculture’. This definition covers grazing, cropping, bee-keeping and dairy. (Intensive agriculture comes into play when hand-feeding of animals is primary. Intensive piggeries, chicken farms etc are prohibited under these rules in this zone).

The draft PLEP aimed at some control of commercial activity by making extensive agriculture a matter requiring consent. This was to control over-grazing, silting up streams and other environmental impacts from larger scale operations. The ‘with consent’ caused the problems for those who didn’t read or want to hear the exceptions regarding hobby farming and residential rights.

The requirement for consent is likely to be revised by councillors due to the difficulties of assessing the commercial level of an enterprise. Perhaps also to placate the critics who wrote en masse to council. Council has about 450 submissions on the PLEP.

Taking off ‘with consent’ aimed at bigger operations can open the door to other abuse such as someone clearing the whole block for a crop. While the NSW Native Vegetation Act should prohibit such activity, Wright agreed that control or prosecution would become an ‘after the fact’ action when there is no need for development approval.

Product of the last council dealing with urban-focused planning

The draft PLEP is the outcome of four years work by the previous Council which certainly did not have a green majority or any Councillors who wanted to deny others their land rights. It was driven by language and a template mandated by the state of NSW with frequent changes along the way.

Palerang General Manager Peter Bascomb notes that an ongoing problem has been the urban focus of the Sydney framers of the LEP template with scant allowance for specific rural issues and environments. The extensive Palerang rural residential zone is unique in NSW and has posed these challenges of easy ‘fit’ with the allowable language and categories.

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