Central Coast Council’s environment and planning staff are recommending that Administrator Rik Hart ignores the advice of the Local Planning Panel (LPP) and resolves to move ahead with the reclassification of community land to operational land with the clear intention to keep selling public land.
By Jacquelene Pearson
Last week the Local Planning Panel was asked to give its expert advice to the council on its proposal to reclassify 11 parcels of community land to operational land. Most of the sites were part of the 2020 asset selloff program overseen by Mr Hart when he was Acting CEO and Mr Dick Persson as Interim Administrator.
At the time, the community was informed the asset sales were necessary to resolve the Central Coast Council’s cashflow crisis. Public statements made by Mr Persson and Mr Hart at various times from October 2020 to April 2021 indicated that the council needed to sell between $40 million and $60 million worth of public land to aid the organisation’s financial recovery.
The council is now in a “sound and stable financial position” according to CEO, David Farmer, and yet the disposal of public land continues.
It is unlawful to sell community land, as it is deemed, under the Local Government Act, to have value to the community. It must be reclassified to operational land before it can be sold.
That reclassification process includes the making of a planning proposal, public consultation and a public hearing.
Council also asked the Local Planning Panel to consider the planning proposal and provide expert advice prior to the matter being considered at the September Central Coast Council meeting scheduled for September 26.
At its September 14 meeting, the Local Planning Panel considered the request for advice from Central Coast Council on a resolution adopted at its August meeting.
According to the LPP meeting agenda the sites to be the subject of council’s planning proposal would be: Gosford City Bowling Club, Dane St, Gosford; 49-51 Mann St, Gosford; 50W Parraweena Rd, Gwandalan; 48W Wallarah Rd, Gorokan; 191 Wallarah Rd, Kanwal; Part 6W Kemira Rd, Lake Munmorah; 75 Bungary Rd, Norah Head; Part 20 Summerland Road (Sporties) Summerland Point; Part 2-4 Park Rd, The Entrance; 13-15 Yaralla Rd, Toukley; Carpark and Curtilage Austin Butler Way, Woy Woy.
Seven of those sites are currently zoned RE1 for Community Recreation and part of another site is zoned SP2 infrastructure (road).
According to the Local Planning Panel minutes released on September 20, “The Panel supports the reclassification of land except those sites zoned SP2 – infrastructure or RE1 – public recreation.
“Such sites should be deferred until the completion of an environmental assessment of their rezoning potential. Once completed, appropriate classification of the sites can be determined. If required, any future planning proposal would include: rezoning of the land including supporting environmental assessment studies; and reclassification of the land under the Local Government Act 1993.”
Council staff have not accepted the advice which would have seen the reclassification process deferred for: Kemira Rd, Lake Munmorah; The Greens Bowling Club at Park Rd, The Entrance; 191 Wallarah Rd, Kanwal; 48W Wallarah Rd, Gorokan; and Austin Butler Ac, Woy Woy.
The report Mr Hart will consider next week implies that it is not necessary to abide by the LPP advice because “the planning proposal does not propose to rezone any of the sites.”
However, the council’s report to the LPP stated: “Where land is required to be rezoned from RE1 Public Recreation to an alternative zone (due to the sale of land) a planning proposal will be prepared to consider the future change in zone and consistency with Local and State legislation and strategic plans and policies.”
Austin Butler Ac has been the focal point of a concerted community campaign to stop its reclassification and sale, including multiple protest events on the site since 2020, a petition and an open letter to Rik Hart, David Farmer and the Minister for the Central Coast, David Harris, which was published as a full-page advertisement in local newspapers.
Information in the public domain indicates that Austin Butler AC would need to be rezoned to facilitate its sale to the adjoining Peninsula Plaza shopping centre for commercial use.
It appears the council intends to sell the land with its current zoning and leave it to the purchaser to set about rezoning the land so it can be used for commercial purposes. It is unclear whether the land would fetch a higher price if it was rezoned before it was sold.
Council has not provided the public or the LPP with information about any opportunity cost that could result from not rezoning the land prior to its sale. Could this result in a similar outcome to the land sold at Warners Park, Warnervale, for its “unimproved” value that was subsequently sold by the developer for a substantial profit within months of its sale by Central Coast Council?
It stated in its report to the LPP that “due to there being no proposed change in zone, the proposal will not adversely affect critical habitat, threatened species, populations or ecological communities or their habitats”.
This statement appears to ignore the community campaign that has focused on the retention of 44 paperbark and she oak trees in the reserve at Austin Butler that doe provide habitat for an array of native species.
Registered clubs are permitted in the RE1 zone, according to the Central Coast Council’s Local Environmental Plan 2022, so the sites at The Entrance, Kanwal and Gorokan may be able to be sold without the need for rezoning.
The council has also responded to comments from the Austin Butler campaign, including from the Community Environment Network, about the need to discharge any conditions related to the dedication of land to the council for public recreation.
Council had not, in any of its public reports on Austin Butler, mentioned that it was dedicated to the council for the specific purpose of public recreation until this issue was raised by the community.
In it’s report to the LPP it stated that it intended to extinguish the Public Reserve Trust Requirements on the DP for the sites, and other minor encumbrances on the titles as part of the reclassification to operational land.
CEN’s Chair, Gary Chestnut, has said he believes the NSW local government law requires that such trusts can only be extinguished if the land is no longer being used by the community for the purpose of its original dedication. He says the Woy Woy land is still clearly being used for public recreation and, thus, should not qualify for reclassification.
He has also argued that the law requires the permission of the NSW Governor for the conditions of a dedication to be removed. Council has responded that, in practice, this is usually left to the Department of Planning when it agrees to a planning proposal for reclassification.
This latest episode in the three-year-long saga of council’s asset selloff program, raises more questions about how this process has been managed to date.
Throughout the three-year asset selloff program, Council has lined up preferred purchasers, offered long settlements and been extremely accommodating to the purchasers. The Warner Business Park deal is the most obvious example of how this strategy has resulted in sales that have not garnered the best result for residents and ratepayers.
Assets have been sold without competitive tender for undisclosed sale prices and usually to parties known to the council.
It is unclear why Central Coast Council continues to bend over backwards to accommodate the requirements of commercial enterprises such as Mingara Recreation Club (preferred tenant or purchaser for The Greens at The Entrance) and Peninsula Plaza with its anchor tenant Woolworths (preferred purchaser for Austin Butler Acc).
So much so that it is now prepared to ignore the advice of experts on the Local Planning Panel. Could the intent of the LPP advice be to make sure any land reclassified for sale should be rezoned to reach its highest market value when sold? It is difficult to know as the matter was considered in confidential and only the resolution made public.