As the deadline approaches for voting in Central Coast Council’s poll to save or sacrifice a stand of mature native trees in the middle of Woy Woy Town Centre, The Point has obtained documents via Government Information Public Access (GIPA) that indicate substantial external pressure has been applied for years to expedite the sale of the public land even though senior council officers were aware it was inappropriate for reclassification.
By Jacquelene Pearson
In July 2016, two months after the dissolution of Gosford City Council, the appointment of former Wyong Shire CEO, Rob Noble as Acting CEO for the new Central Coast Council and an administrator, a third party representing the owners of the Peninsula Plaza started lobbying the senior executive tier of the new council to sell the Austin Butler AC.
It is clear from the correspondence, the third party whose name has been redacted from most (but not all) of the GIPA documents, understood the zoning and classification of the land but did not appear to consider the importance of the reserve to the community, any covenants that may have prevented its reclassification or its tendency to flood.
The correspondence released by Central Coast Council shows that the council holds no documentary evidence to support any history of traffic or safety issues around the Austin Butler and Blackwall Road precinct. The documents clarify that a previous attempt to reclassify the land from community to operational was abandoned because it was deemed unsuitable due to being flood prone.
Whilst emails regarding that abandoned planning proposal were released under GIPA, the proposal itself was not released. It is unclear whether the current Administrator and team responsible for the management of community land have read the correspondence released under GIPA or seen the abandoned planning proposal.
Austin Butler AC was initially listed for sale as part of the council’s asset disposal program, intended to liquidate “surplus” public assets to resolve the council’s cashflow issues. A concerted community campaign has garnered over 3000 signatures on a petition and the support of the Member for Gosford, Liesl Tesch, to stop the reclassification and sale of the land.
Administrator Rik Hart removed Austin Butler AC from a bulk reclassification of community land. However, he resolved to run a community poll to give residents the choice of retaining the reserve in public ownership or going ahead with its reclassification and sale. The “carrot” dangled in front of the community is a promise from the Administrator, who will be leaving the Coast next September, to use the millions of dollars from the proceeds of the sale of Austin Butler AC to plant street trees on the Woy Woy Peninsula.
Residents have until Monday, 13 November to vote in the poll. However, The Point is aware that council has also conducted a “selective” phone based poll and it is unclear how this latest consultation will be interpreted by the council.
The email trail released by Central Coast Council under GIPA raises questions about why the current property management team, and the Administrator, are so committed to selling this land when a previous attempt to reclassify it was abandoned.
An email to Rob Noble in late July 2016 said: “Rob, this office acts on behalf of [name redacted] who manage the Peninsula Plaza shopping complex in Blackwall Road at Woy Woy. The existing shopping centre is an important piece of commercial infrastructure servicing the very busy Woy Woy shopping precinct but has over the years increasingly been subject to traffic congestion and servicing difficulties off Blackwall Road where the success of the centre has created considerable traffic problems associated with the ingress/egress off Blackwall Road. This is both from a customer parking perspective and semi-trailer deliveries to the existing Woolworths supermarket.
“In recent times this has lead to discussions with senior council staff in relation to the council-owned land at the rear of the site. Peninsula Plaza had sought to advance discussions in 2014 to acquire the triangular portion of land between the centre, the Woy Woy Oval and the car park so as to facilitate the reorganization of the Peninsula Plaza car park, loading dock and ingress/egress arrangements.
“The subject land is current zone (sic) RE1 Public Recreation. It is currently classified as community land and would need to be reclassified as operational land before council could enter into any commercial arrangement with Peninsula Plaza. I understand that these discussions stalled at council’s senior management levels with [name redacted] unable to advance the negotiations.
“The current centre operations are becoming increasingly more difficult such that this office has been instructed to seek an urgent meeting with you with a view to recommencing the discussion associated with the reclassification of the council land and subsequent acquisition of the triangular portion by Peninsula Plaza.”
The next email is dated 2017, indicating council was slow to move forward with the negotiations.
A flurry of email exchanges between the unnamed third party representing the owners of the Peninsula Plaza Shopping Centre on Blackwall Rd, Woy Woy, and the Central Coast Council “Ask” email address took place in 2017.
The third party continued to push for a meeting with then-Director, Mike Dowling and Acting CEO, Rob Noble. “Further to my earlier requests, could you please advise when it would be possible to meet with Rob Noble and Mike Dowling regarding Peninsula Plaza. This matter is becoming extremely urgent due to in the (sic) ingress/egress difficulties onto Blackwall Road for both customers and delivery vehicles. I would confirm that [name redacted] and myself would be available at any time that suits to discuss the possible acquisition of the public reserve land at the rear of Peninsula Plaza,” the unnamed third party wrote.
That email was sent around lunch time on 4 July 2017 and, within a minute, Director Dowling had responded: “Let me see what I can do re the meeting. I will come back to you.”
The correspondence indicates that by November 2017, Director Mike Dowling and his executive assistant, Margaret Collins, were in favour of the sale of the land and requesting reports from colleagues in support of the sale.
Collins wrote to Dowling on 1 October 2017, “Mike, further to our previous discussions, now that the new council has been sworn in, could you advise as to when a report is likely to be presented to council for the sale of the council land to Peninsula Plaza?”
Collins repeated her request to Dowling on 17 October, noting “urgency”.
On 2 November 2017, Collins wrote to Boris Bolgoff, then-Senior Manager Roads, Transport and Drainage, asking: “Mike needs a council report written around the sale of the triangle parcel of council land. I think there have been a number of traffic incidents/reports on the surrounding area that would lend to the argument of council selling it to [name redacted]’s client. Can you please discuss with Mike and start pulling together the report please?”
Bolgoff didn’t play ball, responding on 2 November (the next day): “Normally I would be able to provide benefits in the disposal of land such as road reserves but the property section undertakes the report and process. My team is not equipped to deal with property matters but we can support the process.”
Collins wrote back mid-November: “I thought there were traffic problems and a report that was undertaken by your team that would lend credence to the sale of the land?”
Bolgoff subsequently instructed members of his team to investigate and discuss.
A unit manager, Jeanette Williams responded to Bolgoff on 16 November: “I have researched this matter and cannot identify any previous transactions on this request from Roads, Transport and Drainage… From my understanding a planning proposal was investigated, however, did not proceed due to constraints with the site.
“I have attached the application for the planning proposal and plan and the advice from the Director Environment and Planning that the planning proposal did not comply with ministerial direction for flood-prone land as well as Council LEP, DCP. The planning proposal was required to address these matters before further assessment could occur. It appears that based on this advice the planning proposal was abandoned.”
Bolgoff passed this information on to Mike Dowling’s secretary on 16 November 2017 but the third party persisted with their campaign to acquire the land for their clients, the owners of the Peninsula Plaza shopping centre.
In June 2018, Bolgoff is sent the following email which is carbon copied to three of the councillors. “Furthe to our discussions yesterday, with Mike Dowling retiring from council, it has now appeared that this matter had not progressed in any meaningful way. My clients are genuinely concerned as to the length of time this matter has been sitting with council…I previously understood that a draft report had been prepared for council but am really unsure now as to whether this has actually transpired… The traffic and safety issues surrounding the ingress/egress … are now becoming critical. The owners are trying to budget for major alterations to the shopping centre but need to know that the land acquisition process is moving forward.”
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