New look Council, but the old culture survives

*NB: This post has been edited at the request of the TRRA Management Committee and differs from the original article.

“The new Mayor and Councillors have made a disappointing start, at their first meeting held on 26 Sept 2017.”

The First Meeting:

The new Mayor and Councillors have made a disappointing start, at their first meeting held on 26 Sept 2017. They failed to take the opportunity to change the culture embraced by the previous Council, which all of them agreed to do at our TRRA Candidates Forum. (*What they said at the Forum*) The issues raised by TRRA were all about transparency, consultation and accountability and the decision to keep the existing meeting cycle structure was not in the best interests of the new Councillors to make properly considered decisions in future, for the public to have any notice of what is before Council or have any input into the process.

The council staff failed to follow their own Code of Meeting Practice by putting the Agenda and Council papers up on it’s website at about 9:30 am on the Monday, for the meeting on Tuesday. (Three days minimum notice for any meeting). This was when TRRA discovered that the staff had recommended that the meeting cycle remain as it was (Option 1). The only other options for consideration were to retain the current cycle with no committee at all (Option 2), or two committee meetings and two Ordinary Council meetings in the month with the meetings a week apart (Option 3.)This option would double the cost and frequency of meetings and was never a serious consideration. The pre 2012 option which TRRA recommended and debated at our Forum was not even presented as an option. This prompted a flurry of emails amongst the TRRA committee, some councillors and a formal letter to the councillors. 

The Decision:

When we arrived for the meeting we were informed (unofficially) that  Councillor Nell would move the motion to return to the pre 2012 cycle, against the staff recommendation, Councillor Abbott would second it, Councillor Arnott would support it and the rest would oppose or not support it. That is exactly what happened.

Councillor Le-Mottee vigorously supported the status quo, and attacked Option 3 on cost and frequency, seemingly oblivious to the actual motion that was being debated, talking about having 42 meetings in a year. Jordan launched a blistering attack on the proposition based on the ridiculous idea that the Committee meeting would have to be held in the lunch room because at some time in the past when no one from the public turned up they had had a few in there for convenience. He stated that transparency would not exist because we would not all be able to fit in there. These were ridiculous arguments that had nothing to do with what was being proposed.

Councillor Nell did not use his right of reply to shoot down these spurious arguments, the staff did not intervene and the Mayor said that he did not want to be seen to be going against the staff recommendation at his first meeting and would leave things as they were at this time. To top things off Clr. Nell voted for the status quo in the motion that followed.

We are also surprised that no one contested the Deputy Mayor’s position, the decision to make it a 12 month tenure might mean they intend to share it around.

PS Council Election History:

Five years ago we saw the full consequences of the referendum conducted with the previous Council elections in 2008, to reduce the representation from each ward from four Councillors to three, and have a Mayor elected by the people instead of fellow Councillors.

So at the next elections in 2012 we had the election of the first presidential style, popularly elected Mayor, meaning the Candidate with the most resources to expend in a campaign across the whole LGA would likely win. Mayor Mackenzie admitted in his declaration to the Electoral Commission that he had supported eight of the other candidates. This made sure that a good solid voting bloc would support his agenda. (In his declaration to the Electoral Commission he outspent rival Clr. Dingle by 10:1)

This did not just happen, it was a long term, well planned strategy, as revealed by then Clr. Steve Tucker in the Newcastle Herald Bruce Almighty series of articles in 2014.

We await with great interest the release of the declarations to the Electoral Commission to see who spent what in this campaign, but don’t hold your breath, that won’t be released under our crazy election laws until November 2018.

Changed Meeting Cycle

At the first Council meeting on Sept 25 2012, those Councillors radically changed the existing meeting cycles in a way that allowed them and senior administrative staff, to railroad controversial decisions through with minimum public scrutiny and participation.

The original system is still embraced by most other Councils around our LGA, (Newcastle City, Port Macquarie, Central Coast, North Sydney, Lane Cove, Hornsby, Mid-Western Regional, Northern Beaches, Mosman, Lismore, Queanbeyan-Palerang to name a few,) to allow proper notice to the public and informed decision making by councillors.

A Council meeting was held on the first Tuesday of the month which was classified as a ‘Committee of the whole’. This meant the Agenda and Council papers were released to the Councillors on a Friday evening at 5:00 PM and on the following Tuesday the agenda was discussed in an informal manner where Councillors could ask staff questions, speak more than once, etc. A vote was still taken on each issue, but it was only a recommendation to go to an ‘Ordinary Council Meeting’

The ‘Ordinary Council Meeting’ would be held on the last Tuesday of the month and would deal with the same agenda and recommendations, but could amend or debate those recommendations again before making a final decision on them in a formal manner.

This allowed sufficient time for Councillors to consider complex decisions properly, get advice from staff and do their homework before they had to vote. This also allowed the public and organisations like ours to consult with their Councillors and their members on the more contentious issues in the fortnight between meetings. It even allowed staff time to give Councillors advice on our submissions, no time is available for that now.

 The Current Meeting Cycle

The current system of having two Ordinary Council meetings a month and going into ‘Committee’ immediately before the formal vote allows voting blocs or those ‘in the know’ to railroad things through the system before proper consideration is given to issues or any opportunity for consultation with the public is given, and puts pressure on the other councillors to make ad hoc decisions that they don’t fully understand.

The public gets the Council information papers, which must be downloaded from the Council website at 5:00 pm on Friday evening. (Attempts have been made to do this earlier, but delivery has been inconsistent). This gives them the weekend and one working day to analyse the hundreds of pages of complex data. If they want to apply for Public Access to address the Council meeting this must be submitted before 12.00 midday on Monday. This is totally at the discretion of the Mayor, and can be refused without explanation. (Another policy exclusive to PS Council)

This makes for ill-considered decisions by Councillors (particularly inexperienced ones,) and the only way to put the process on hold to get more information is to move to defer the decision. The councillor then has to have the ‘numbers’ to do that, and can be accused of unnecessarily delaying the process. The other, even worse option, which frequently occurred in the last Council was to move a rescission motion, after the meeting, which inevitably leads to an expensive Extraordinary Council meeting to ram it through again the following week.

A classic case in point was the last Council meeting before the election where there were 946 pages of Council papers which included two contentious Flood mound developments that were recommended for refusal by Council Staff. Council did not go into ‘Committee of the whole’ mode at all, but dealt with the massive agenda without any prior discussion. One Flood mound was passed and one refused. A rescission motion was then moved after the meeting by the Mayor, forcing another Extraordinary General meeting the following week. A Councillor that refused the motion at the first meeting reversed their vote and it was passed at the following special meeting.

No explanation was ever given as to whether the Councillor was confused the first time or why the change of mind. These Extraordinary meetings cost about $5,000.00 each to run by councils own admission..

The Webcam

The other contentious decision taken by the previous Council was to remove the live webcasting of proceedings. Aside from the convenience factor of not having to travel to Raymond Terrace to attend meetings, TRRA feels that reinstating the webcam would lift the standard of debate and the conduct of meetings, if all were aware that proceedings were being broadcast live and a record was being kept of who was supporting what.

We understand that this promise by the new candidates is also meeting strong resistance from Council staff and the councillors from the previous Council.

It remains to be seen whether the new team will emerge with any credibility from that debate either, or even if it will ever be held. We were very optimistic that the ‘changing of the guard’ might result in a changing of the culture, transparency, accountability, consultation was what the new Councillors promised us,  It’s over to you to deliver now Councillors………..!

**NB**: An excellent letter containing more technical arguments on these topics has been sent to Council and staff from one of our TRRA committee members HERE. It is well worth a read.

Dick Appleby, TRRA Vice President and Media officer 

Mambo Fight Continues – 01 Oct 2017 Protest at Site

Update 01 October 2017

Oct 01 2017: Mambo wetland angst sparks rally

Oct 01 2017: Port Stephens Koalas launches ‘Go Fund Me’ page

A successful protest meeting was held today at the Mambo wetlands site at 11 am to discuss the lodging of a DA for the site by the new owner. Speakers included, the PS Mayor Ryan Palmer, Councillors John Nell, Jaimie Abbott, Giacomo Arnott, representatives of the PS Koala Protection group, Ecconetwork and our own Nigel Waters. The meeting was chaired by Kathy Brown and about 300 enthusiastic people turned out in the middle of a Grand final long weekend. The sausage sizzle and the coffee van did a roaring trade and the hat was passed around raising nearly $1,400.00 for the campaign ahead.

Protestors were urged to make written submissions or objection letters to Council before they consider this application by 27 Oct 2017.

Letters of concern the the Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter, Scott McDonald, the Minister who has responsibility for this ‘Mistake,” to remind him that admitting this was good, but fixing it by reversing the process would be even better.

Mambo Wetland Threat – What you can do
Mambo Wetland Threat – Key points for Submissions
The Mambo DA Plan
25 Sept 2017 Update on Mambo Wetlands Development.
 Development Application (2017/620) has been lodged for a $600,000 duplex on the site.

25 Sept 2017: Koalas in Key land conflict

From the EcconetPS Facebook page

TRRA Inc. 2017 Annual General Meeting Notice

Dear Members

 We hope that you and your families will attend this important meeting, and if you feel you can make a contribution, nominate for a position on the Management Committee, we need all the help we can get! For more information click on the links below.

**Members of the public are welcome, but you must be a financial TRRA Member to have voting rights.**

TRRA Inc. AGM Notice & Agenda Tuesday 17 October 2017

Guest Speaker: Ryan Palmer Recently elected Mayor, PS Council.

East Ward Councillors will also be in attendance

Previous AGM Minutes and Reports 18 October 2016
Presentation to AGM 18 October 2016 (Large PDF File, 5mb)
Documentation for AGM 18 October 2016:
2016/17 Management Committee
2017/18 Management Committee Nomination Form
2017/18 Membership / Renewal Form  
Constitution
 Committee Nominations, Email to: Cath Norman secretary@trra.com.au

Lawyers Picnic At Lagoons Estate 2017

This is our annual roundup of the Lagoons Estate saga, we covered this in 2015, 2016, and now in 2017 it is still a Lawyers Picnic. On 12 September 2017 Justice Pembroke set down a further hearing date May, 2018. This case has now been in court 14 times since May 2016. The Judge himself made a scathing assessment of those involved and the costs incurred:

The conduct of the proceedings does not reflect well on the legal representatives or their clients. It has certainly not been in the interests of the parties or in the interests of justice. The current dispute has all the hallmarks of an attitude on both sides which is both myopic and pedantic. There has been an excessive focus on formality and minutiae, at the expense of the real issues in dispute. – NSW Supreme Court Justice Michael Pembroke

Journalist Joanne McCarthy’s excellent coverage, of this case and some discussion with the Lagoons Estate Resident Group is the only information we get on this matter. Deafening silence from PS Council.

Meet Our New Council

The final Council election results were made available at 11:38 am today on the Electoral Commission website HERE

Mayor: Ryan Palmer

Central Ward: Steve Tucker, Sarah Smith, Chris Doohan

East Ward: Glen Dunkley, Jamie Abbott, John Nell

West Ward: Giacomo Arnott, Ken Jordan, Paul Le-Mottee

TRRA Inc. Would like to congratulate all successful candidates on their election, and sincerely hopes that we can work constructively together with them in the new Council when they take up their roles.

Questionnaire to PS Council Election Candidates

The Port Stephens Greens have sent a comprehensive 24 Question survey to all lead candidates in the 2017 Council election. Twelve of the candidates completed the questionnaires. Some of the responses are quite interesting and can be viewed HERE.

Please Note: The law on distributing election material is very important.

This is especially relevant due to some very contentious and derogatory material that is being distributed across the LGA in the lead up to the election which carries no identification whatsoever.

TRRA is of the view that anything being distributed without attribution is generally sent out that way because the perpetrators arguments would not stand up to proper legal scrutiny, and are probably libellous, untrue or both. This material should preferably be ignored, but if you look at who would stand to gain from such imputations, it is not too hard to figure out where it is coming from. The Police are have been notified and are investigating.

This Disclaimer is on the Greens site and applies to this TRRA site as well. We have their permission to link to this article. TRRA Inc. are not endorsing any group or candidate either.

“Please note that anyone printing and distributing ‘election material’ must comply with electoral law, including by including an ‘authorised by … and printed by …’ imprint. Also, any such material distributed on election day (9 September) had to be registered with the Electoral Commission by 1 September. We therefore advise viewers not to print and distribute any of the information on this page.  Port Stephens Greens are not endorsing or supporting any candidate or group – we provide the candidates’ responses to our questionnaire for online viewing as a public service to assist voters in making their choice.”

Tip! Take care with your preferences again in this election, make sure you know where your vote is going.

‘Meet the Candidates’ – The Video……!

On 15 August 2017 TRRA Inc. held a very successful ‘Meet the Candidates’ forum for the 2017 Port Stephens Council elections at the Nelson Bay Bowling Club, attended by about 240 people and most of the candidates.

We have been running these forums for all Federal, State and Local Government elections since 2008, and have developed a format that is fair, balanced and well received by candidates and constituents, incorporating a PowerPoint presentation, a digital timer, an opportunity for candidates to introduce themselves, some fixed questions developed by TRRA, a Q & A from the floor, and a short closing statement from the candidates.

A new innovation for this forum was to arrange for it to be made into a video and post it to YouTube, so that it could be a permanent record of the proceedings, questions asked, commitments made, and a way to assist people who could not attend to evaluate the candidates.

The venue presented some technical difficulties with poor lighting and the equipment malfunctioned towards the end, but we ended up with reasonable quality video for the full 2hrs 26 minutes of the forum, but unfortunately we lost the sound for the last 33 minutes. (at 1hr:53 min) This would have been the last few questions of the Q&A and unfortunately the closing statements, which in most cases were very strong.

This was a good initiative and we are confident that we can design this into our next forum that we run with better results given this experience, but one never knows when the electronic gremlins will strike…..

 

The link to the video is HERE

 

TRRA Media Officer

Dick Appleby

Recent Council approval of ‘Flood Mound Developments’

Recent Council approval Of ‘Flood Mound Developments’

 Against the recommendations of Council Staff

In an otherwise appalling Council meeting on 28th March 2017, attended by 4 TRRA members and a huge gallery, we witnessed a welcome turnaround on voting on DAs for earth mounds on flood plains.  Three DAs were recommended for refusal by Council officers and these were supported unanimously. This bucked the previous voting by “the bloc of 7” in approving these types of DAs since August 2014.

It seems that Cr Jordan was first to “have a change of heart” as he spoke strongly at the March 2017 meeting in support of refusal. He has maintained that position ever since, along with Crs Dingle, Nell and Kafer who voted against them.

Surprise, surprise, “back again” on the agenda items, for the huge agenda for 29 July 2017 meeting (and expected last one for this Council) were two of the three DAs for building on flood plains which were refused on 28th March! 

Once again the DAs were recommended for refusal by Council officers highlighting, amongst many other concerns, the velocity of the river, and the risk to SES volunteers in rescuing people. The use of good agricultural land for residential purposes was another concern regularly highlighted by Cr Nell.

The 29th July meeting was moved to 1st August because of a lack of a quorum for the 900 page agenda.

The two DAs were refused on 1st August, 2017 with Crs Jordan and Dover supporting Crs Dingle, Kafer and Nell. Two members of “the bloc” were absent.

But……. it didn’t end there! The Mayor and Cr Doohan immediately lodged rescission motions. An extraordinary meeting of Council then had to be called for 8th August to re-consider these 2 refusals.

This time Cr Dover voted with the Mayor, Cr Doohan and Tucker and, with Cr Kafer absent, gained the approval of these DAs with 33 conditions.

We were left to wonder “what happened” between 1st and 8th August to change Cr Dover’s vote which put these undesirable DAs across the line.

In response to a question about Earth Mounds on Flood Plains at the TRRA ‘Meet the Candidates’ Forum on Tuesday 15th August Cr Nell reminded Councillors that they can become individually financially liable for the decisions they make, and these approvals were not ones he ever supported. Cr Dingle had also opposed these DAs, and new candidates standing for Council, Ryan Palmer, Des Maslen, David Simms and Jamie Abbott all said that they would not have supported the approval.

Cr Dover was out on a limb. Cr Tucker, who is also standing for Mayor, did not attend the Forum. It would have been interesting to hear his reasons.

Only time will tell whether these approvals will put peoples’ lives at risk. The undesirable precedents set could be costly. Council (ratepayers!) could be up for legal costs in the future should others apply and be refused.

Prepared 20 August 2017 for TRRA by Margaret Wilkinson from research from minutes of Council meetings of 28th March, 1st August and 8th August 2017. 

Note the link to her previous article on this issue in 2015. The first recommended refusal by Council officers for the same reason as all the others, was overturned and approved on 26 August 2014 by “the bloc”.

 

Ngioka Centre, can it survive?

Port Stephens Council will reconsider its financial support of horticultural services at the Ngioka Centre, Little Beach.

 

08 June 2017: Ngioka – Council reviews investment in disability services at plant nursery

Port Stephens Council officers are recommending to Council later this month (20 June 2017) that the Ngioka Horticultural Centre at Little Beach be leased to a National Disability Insurance Service (NDIS) provider who has indicated that existing services to disability clients and a native nursery will continue.

Sounds simple!  However, the ramifications of this are much more than what meets the eye.

Nowhere in the consultation process had Landcare 355c groups been consulted until Council officers received wind of a special meeting of volunteers called last week.  Then, hastily a Q & A sheet was emailed to over 200 volunteers the evening before. That Q & A only tells half the story of what leasing this community owned facility could really mean for the future.

This lease is being negotiated with a private profit making provider with their priority naturally being NDIS clients.  There will be no guarantee that when any future cost cutting measures are to be taken by that organisation, that the native nursery will not be first to go.

Our community and Landcare groups from across the Shire depend on Ngioka for local native endemic plants.  It is an absolute waste of volunteer time to plant anything other than these plants.

The roundtable meeting of volunteers certainly came up with lots of ideas for this important community owned facility. For example, this centre could be a true centre focusing on all things sustainable with its prime focus being the nursery and disability services. It could be the umbrella management centre for all the volunteer Landcare and Tidy Towns groups. Its location close to the Native Flora Garden and the Cultural Centre make it an ideal place to develop tourism opportunities such as guided tours. Linked to that there could be educational displays of native plants, animals, vegetation, indigeneous and wartime history (Fly Point) and even have a small shop such as at the Marine Rescue.

It could also be a centre to recognise the work and achievements of local Landcare groups. Given the potential ground space which could be developed, it would be ideal as a base for environmental and support staff from Port Stephens Council.

The Centre costs Port Stephens Council $150,000 a year to run. This is mainly the wages of the two council employees.  In the past the Centre has relied on receiving $50,000 a year from the State Government Disability Program. This has now been disbanded and the funding transferred to the NDIS. Funding through the NDIS is attached directly to the client enabling them to access services directly.  This funding model disadvantages the Ngioka Centre as there is no reliable block funding available. The loss of the disability funding has meant that the Centre has been running at an increased loss.  The centre is not self-sufficient and needs to find another funding source to supplement the money coming in from the sale of plants and from Port Stephens Council.

This site is zoned public recreation and yet Council are wanting to offload this to get money from a lease.

We recognise that disability services have changed with the introduction of the NDIS.  Council should be moving with these changes instead of taking the easy way out and losing control of a vital community owned facility. The loss of horticultural knowledge of the two staff employed at the Centre will also be lost to our community.  The need for a better business plan and major improvements are fully recognised.  Most in our community don’t even know about this extremely valuable facility. Good marketing would be a start.  Bunnings plants just “don’t cut it” for planting for the future natural environment we all value and enjoy.

 20 Jan 2017: Ngioka Centre: Horticulture and a Helping Hand

Compiled by Margaret Wilkinson for TRRA – Corlette Landcare volunteer for 10 years in Port Stephens – With assistance from Cath Norman TRRA Secretary and Landcare volunteer

Margaret Says:

“In all of this, the missing equation has been consultation with the Landcare volunteers who need this service to continue planting local endemic native species to sustain the beautiful natural environment we live in for future generations. All the reports to Council leave out the valuable $ contribution Landcare and Tidy Towns volunteers are making. This is a basic service that should be retained and has the potential to expand into an outstanding facility to promote not only the social interaction and activity for those with disabilities, but also one which values the future of our planet by continuing to provide local endemic species for planting. The ideas that came forth from volunteers at the roundtable at Medowie yesterday should be listened to by Council instead of handing this facility over to an NDIS provider likely to take the axe to the native plant nursery if it doesn’t perform 365 days per year, and, make a “profit”. Council officers just “don’t get it”, that extremes of temperature and climatic conditions dictate when it’s best to put in plants so that they survive and thrive without a lot of work and watering by volunteers.“

A High-rise Nelson Bay? The story so far.

Port Stephens Council’s recent approval of a high density high-rise apartment building at 11-13 Church St – at 33 metres more than twice the official height limit for the site, may be a game-changing move in the long-running struggle to keep the low-rise character of this unique coastal town, nestled in a natural amphitheatre surrounded by wooded hills.

 

 

 

We’ve been here before!

The local community has for more than 30 years fought off successive attempts to allow high rise apartments in and around the town centre. Key battles were over:

  • A proposed 10-12 storey re-development of the Seabreeze hotel and adjacent sites in 2007-08, which was fiercely resisted by the community. In mid-2008, the owner admitted defeat and the sites were subsequently sold off separately, with the new owners of the hotel and motel subsequently making major and welcome investments in renovations without the need for any height increase.
  • A bid by Nelson Bay Diggers in 2008 to redevelop its Shoal Bay Road Club with a 7 storey tower, and a subsequent proposal in 2015 by the renamed Wests Diggers for two towers of 8 and 10 storeys. While outside the town centre, the Club land is located on the eastern ridgeline and tower buildings would have dominated the skyline.  Neither attempt was successful.

Mayor (formerly Councillor) Bruce Mackenzie and former Mayor and Councillor Bob Westbury have been consistent vocal proponents of high-rise buildings in Nelson Bay. Other Councillors have been inconsistent in their views, apparently torn between the community’s clear desire to retain the low-rise character of the town and what they are told (by developers and their allies) is the only way to revitalise the centre.

In the most recent debates (over the Church St apartments), a clear majority of Councillors bought the latter case, although even some of them are now on record as saying they would not support high buildings in the lower parts of the town centre.  It won’t be long before we see how serious they are!

 

 

 

Increased height slips through – but mostly not fatal.

While never relaxing the strict official height controls, which have remained at 15 metres, Council has approved a number of developments that exceed those limits:

  • Way back in the mid-1980s, Nelson Towers – a 6 storey apartment and commercial complex across the northern end of the town centre, set an unfortunate precedent and effectively blocked views from elsewhere in the ‘bowl’ to the foreshore.
  • In the late 1990s the 7 storey Landmark apartment complex between the Bowling and Golf Clubs was approved. This at least had the merit of being located up against the wooded Kunara Hill, where there is general agreement that some extra height is compatible with the town character.
  • In 2014, Council gave approval for a redevelopment of the Magnus Resort on the ridgeline northeast of the town centre, with two towers of 7 and 8 storeys reaching 25m – 65% more than the LEP limit (An earlier 3 tower plan with the highest building reaching 33m (11 storeys) was withdrawn). The 2014 approval was partly justified by the proposed inclusion of a major conference facility.  The developer has subsequently failed to get approval for a change to allow only the residential tower to be built, without the public benefit of the conference centre.

 

Since 2000, a number of other apartment and/or commercial buildings have been approved in the town centre and vicinity which exceed the 15m height limit, but none by more than 2m other than the approval given in the early 2000’s to a previous proposal for 11-13 Church St, for 25 units reaching 18m.

Subsequent attempts by the then owner of 11-13 Church St to gain approval for variations, variously of up to 41 units and 23.5m height were either refused or withdrawn, which is ironic (and must be deeply galling to the previous owner) in light of the recent decision.

Some but not all of the other approvals were taken up and the buildings completed, including the Cote D’Azur at 61 Donald St, the Lure Apartments at 19-23 Church St and the Aqua Apartments at the eastern end of Tomaree St.

We note that several applications have recently been lodged for apartment buildings (e.g. at 16 Church St and 65-67 Donald St), bidding for only modest variation of the height limit. These proposals demolish the argument that only very high buildings are viable.

Strategic plans – enormous effort largely wasted

While all these individual proposals were being considered, Council initiated processes to supposedly take a more strategic view.

In 2007 Council commenced a review of the Nelson Bay Development Control Plan (DCP), in a project also badged Nelson Bay 2030, with ‘pressure to vary the … height controls …’ flagged as a key stimulus.  Community workshops late in the year were followed by the release of a Draft Nelson Bay 2030 Strategy (from consultants Rohan Dickson and Associates), and a revised 2030 Strategy went on exhibition in June-July 2008. These 2007-08 plans flagged two sites – The Seabreeze Hotel and the Donald St East car park as possible locations for buildings of up to 12 storeys, but this met with major resistance from community group including TRRA.

The next proposals came in an October 2009 report by Patrick Partners. This proposed significantly increased density, with an expansion of the area in which 15m (5 storey) buildings would be allowed to include the entire foreshore/marina, with up to 12 storeys south of Dowling St.

Again, there was widespread and significant opposition, and the process highlighted the need for a better community voice. In October 2009 EcoNetwork Port Stephens, the Tomaree Ratepayers and Residents Association (TRRA), the Nelson Bay and District Business Chamber, Nelson Bay Town Management and Port Stephens Tourism came together to form a Nelson Bay Town Centre and Foreshore Advisory Group (NBTFAG).  Over the next three years NBTFAG engaged with Port Stephens Council and the Department of Lands (which controls the marina and foreshore land).

In August 2010 Council adopted the Nelson Bay Policy for Future Development of the Town Centre and Foreshore Planning Principles.  Action proposed for Principle 10 was to:

  • Promote low to mid-rise buildings uniformly across the town centre, with the potential for additional height if needed at the upper levels of the town centre…’, and
  • Additional height may be considered at the southern edge of town shielded by the backdrop of Kunara Hill

A lengthy further process in which the NBTFAG was closely involved led to a consensus and the adoption by Council, in 2012 of the Nelson Bay Town Centre and Foreshore Strategy, with an accompanying Implementation Programme.  This included a continuation of the 15m default height limit in the town centre, but with a ‘variation provision’ to allow up to 2 extra storeys in exceptional circumstances, in exchange for ‘outstanding design excellence’ and ‘strategic public benefit’.

Unfortunately, Council has not taken the next obvious steps of incorporating height limits and floor space ratios (FSRs) from the Strategy into the Local Environmental Plan (LEP) and Development Control Plan (DCP), despite the opportunity presented by reviews of both plans in the next few years, leading to a new Port Stephens Local Environmental Plan 2013 and a new DCP 2014.  This has meant that the Strategy has failed to provide any meaningful controls.

In 2016, Council initiated a review of the 2012 Strategy, and in early 2017 released a Discussion Paper, which included a justification for allowing higher buildings in the town centre.  Based on questionable economic modelling, and a misleading representation of the variation provisions adopted in 2012, the Paper proposed a general height limit of 24.5m (7 storeys) throughout the town centre, but also a variation mechanism to go higher, without any upper cap.

These proposals have met with major opposition.  A public meeting attended by 200 people overwhelmingly rejected a high-rise future, and even a well-attended business chamber meeting expressed significant reservations.  There have been at least a hundred submissions and when these are reported to Council in mid-2017 it will be very surprising if most do not oppose high rise development in the town centre.

A new umbrella organisation, Nelson Bay Now, was formed in 2016 as a successor to the earlier NBTFAG and with the same groups as members. Once again, while views vary on exact height limits, there is a strong consensus view that the character of the town must be maintained and that very tall buildings are not compatible with that character.

Council conflict of interest

While one part of Council – the Strategic Planning section – has been progressing the Strategy Review, another part – the Commercial Development section, has been negotiating with developers about the future of the two Council-owned car park sites in the town centre (Donald St east and West).  While details of the negotiations remain secret, it is common knowledge that heights of between 14 and 21 storeys have been canvassed.

While Council maintains that there is no connection between the two processes, it is difficult to believe that the strategic planning review is not being influenced by the interests of Council as the owner of the car parks, and this suspicion is borne out by the clear preference in the Review Discussion Paper for major height increases.

Current threats

Apart from Council’s secret negotiations for the car park sites, the major threat to the character of Nelson Bay is now the precedent set by the Church St approval.  TRRA has argued that Council will now find it almost impossible to refuse other applications for developments that exceed height limits, even if new limits are set in a revised Strategy and then incorporated in the LEP and DCP.

Council itself, in the recent Strategy Discussion Paper, admits the likely precedent effect:

‘For example, the variation of 7m (46%) for the approved development at 29-45 Magnus Street, Nelson Bay sets the precedent for similar variations to occur at the Development Assessment Stage and has the potential to reduce the very certainty that development standards are meant to provide in terms of property values, views, over-shadowing, prevailing winds, etc. (p.29)’

While the variation clause in all LEPs (Clause 4.6) potentially allows for any variation from a development standard, State Government guidance and court precedents, as well as common sense, suggest it should be used sparingly and conservatively – otherwise why bother setting a standard, such as a height limit, in the first place?

Other DAs for the town centre have made a case under Clause 4.6 for modest variations of standards, including height limits, which is an appropriate use of the Clause.

But by accepting a Clause 4.6 argument to allow the more than doubling of the current height limit at 11-13 Church St, Council has signalled that it has effectively abandoned its height controls.  Owners of other sites in the town centre (and elsewhere!) can now be expected to queue up for similar variations, and to challenge in court any attempt to enforce even new standards, such as for height or density (FSR) that emerge from the Strategy Review.

What next?

TRRA fears that the Church St approval may have fatally undermined any future attempt to maintain control over building heights in Nelson Bay.  However, we are not throwing in the towel.  The Strategy Review remains an opportunity for the local community to send a very clear message as to the preferred character of the town.

 

But it will require a rejection of the proposed increase of the default height limit to 24.5m (7 storeys) for the entire town centre, and it will take more than general guidelines and vague assurances about quality design to stop developers challenging even the default limits.

The 11-13 Church St experience shows how useless such general guidelines would be – Council ignored the adverse opinion of an independent design panel, and bizarrely accepted that the simple commitment to build anything on a long vacant site represented a major public benefit.

If a revised Strategy is to provide any protection for the remaining character of the town it will need to lead to clear limits on height and density, less than those proposed in the Discussion Paper.  It will also need to lead to rigorous tests for ‘variations’ being incorporated in the LEP and DCP instruments – not just left to advisory Guidelines, and will require Councillors and staff to promote and enforce the standards in a way they have not in the past.  Only in this way will the community, landowners and developers have the consistency and predictability they deserve.

The tone of the Discussion Paper suggests that Council is already preparing the ground for major increases in building height and density, not just in the town centre but also along the sensitive ridge lines to the east and west. Even without the conflict of interest inherent in Council’s ownership of the car park sites, TRRA cannot see how this reflects a broad community consensus that the low-medium rise character of the town be maintained.

It is time for concerned local residents and ratepayers to stand up and be counted – please get involved in the next round of consultation on the Nelson Bay Strategy later this year.

For more information, contact TRRA’s planning team: Nigel Waters planning@trra.com.au and 0407 230 342; John James research@trra.com.au and 0447 158 810, or Steve Latta oceanstetra@bigpond.com and 0417 470 469.