Special report: please don’t take our green spaces for granted

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It’s easy to see the Central Coast as a green oasis and believe we will always have plentiful bushland and pristine waterways but our bush reserves are under threat and we need to take strong community action to protect what we have.

By Jackie Pearson

Have you ever taken a walk on a trail at Kincumba Mountain Reserve? Until recently I’d done one short walk along the Kanning Cave Track as part of a cultural workshop. In recent months I’ve taken lots more walks through parts of the reserve and I have been overwhelmed by its beauty and its wealth of huge trees, sandstone formations and variety of habitats. It is home to many stunning and sacred Aboriginal engravings and significant landmarks. I’ve found some spots on Kincumba Mountain as moving, inspiring and breathtaking as the Valley of the Winds at Kata Juta (the Olgas in the Northern Territory).

Many other locations in the Central Coast’s national parks and council reserves are culturally significant, ecologically rich and diverse, and truly beautiful. Thanks to the vision and foresight of generations past we do have hundreds of hectares of green space on the Coast. Does that mean we have plenty of bushland to squander, hand over to developers or interest groups?

In 2016-17 the freshly-created Central Coast Council put together the first regional community strategic plan called One Central Coast 2018-2028. It was by far the most robust piece of community research put together by the new council and formed a powerful vision for the region’s future. It stated: “The values of the Central Coast community are strongly tied to our local natural environment including our beaches, waterways, ridges, estuaries, lakes and valley floors”.

The One document also gave Council’s commitment to “honouring the history and ongoing contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People to the Central Coast [which] plays a fundamental role in shaping our region”.

The community strategic plan undertook to educate the community and invite us “to take a hands-on role in conservation, protection and remediation of our environment”.

Under the plan’s focus area of “Cherished and Protected Natural Beauty” objectives included to:

1. Protect our rich environmental heritage by conserving beaches, waterways, bushland, wildlife corridors and inland areas and the diversity of local native species;

2. Promote greening and ensure the wellbeing of communities through the protection of local bushland, urban trees, tree canopies and expansion of the Coastal Open Space System (COSS); and

3. Improve enforcement for all types of environmental non-compliance including littering and illegal dumping and encourage excellence in industry practices to protect and enhance environmental health.

Three years after the release of the region’s first community strategic plan, its five interconnected themes – “Belong, Smart, Green, Responsible and Liveable” – are fading into the background, replaced by the more pronounced, and perhaps conveniently over-stated, imperatives of budget repair and debt reduction. The statement that “Central Coast Council will use One – Central Coast to shape business activities, future plans, services and expenditure” is almost laughable when used to measure the council’s current set of priorities.

What are council’s current priorities?

Central Coast Council has been under administration since October 30, 2020 when NSW Local Government Minister, Ms Shelly Hancock, suspended our elected councillors and replaced them with an interim administrator.

The community didn’t get to see the contract or KPIs Minister Hancock presented to interim administrator, Mr Dick Persson AM, for his first three months or his three-month extension. Her media release announcing the suspension of the elected councillors said: “There is a clear need for greater oversight and control over the council’s budget and expenditure to restore its financial sustainability and importantly reinstill [sic] the community’s trust in the effective functioning of their council.”

According to Ms Hancock’s October 30 media release, Mr Persson’s remit was to “restore the financial sustainability” of Central Coast Council. “The appointment of an interim administrator will provide independent governance to address financial, reputational and organisational risks,” the release said.

Nothing placed in the public domain gives any indication that Ms Hancock gave the interim administrator a broader remit than fixing the finances and yet, since October 2020, little more than lip service has been paid to the community strategic plan. The Coast’s natural environment, the region’s biodiversity and the community’s well-stated goal to live sustainably, appear to be the main casualties of the current period of Council administration.

The number of major strategic projects and policies currently open for exhibition on yourvoiceourcoast.com.au – the Council’s digital community engagement portal – shows how much further than the remit of “restore financial sustainability” Mr Persson’s decision-making has gone. The Central Coast Council is currently seeking community feedback via that website on:

1. Developer contribution plans to allow in-kind contributions instead of cash (euphemistically called Draft Works-In-Kind Policies);

2. Place plans for The Entrance Town Centre and Gosford’s Kibble Park;

3. A policy on how Council will manage development applications with a view to improving efficiency for applicants (read developers);

4. An amended meeting code of practice that will see all meetings held at Wyong and a shorter amount of time for the public to access the meeting agenda ahead of time;

5. Exhibition of maps relating to a proposed Conservation Agreement for permanent protection of Porters Creek Wetland that sounds good but is, in fact, a stalling tactic for an agreement that should’ve been signed off last October;

6. An active lifestyles strategy – another euphemism for potentially opening and commercialising our green spaces;

7. Water, sewer and stormwater pricing in preparation for an IPART decision and/or privatisation of the Central Coast’s water authority which became part of Central Coast Council in 2016;

8. A Mountain Bike Feasibility Study which could see precious reserves at Kincumba, Rumbalara-Katandra-Ferntree turned into a regional mountain bike facility; and

9. A number of floodplain management plans.

That’s a lot of items out for exhibition during a period when the community is without elected representation. Recent resolutions made by the administrator in his role as one-man stand-in for 15 duly elected councillors have been:

1. Zoning all Council-owned Coastal Open Space System (COSS) lands E2, even after privately and publicly declaring his support for the protection and expansion of COSS to the whole Central Coast as an E1 Regional Park;

2. Adoption of a lobbying policy that excludes peak industry organisations and professional bodies even if related to development or planning;

3. Progressing the building of a sea wall along Wamberal Beach to the investigation and concept stage when community feedback is opposed to the building of a wall;

4. Passed a questionable proposed optional standard LEP clause for natural disasters;

5. Entered into general funds loans of $150 million which commit future councils to austere capital works expenditure and depreciation caps which will see infrastructure on the Central Coast fall significantly behind other regions;

6. Pushed through the consolidated Central Coast LEP and DCP without councillors present to represent any outstanding community concerns;

7. Set up a referendum in September that could see the number of elected councillors to represent the whole region reduced from 15 to nine across three wards or no wards at all;

8. Set up a process to sell Council land with the first tranche including the Gosford Council chamber and land earmarked for a cultural and performing arts precinct and a wildlife corridor at Thompson Vale Road Doyalson.

That’s in addition to the rate increase that has everyone baying for blood. Mr Persson would argue he has strong environmental credentials and is only doing what needs to be done to improve Council’s financial bottom line.

One of the first measures taken during administration was to strip casual and contract jobs including coordinators of the council’s bushcare program. Bushcare and dunecare groups throughout the LGA were left without Central Coast Council coordinators. It was a sample of what was to come.

The inclusion of a Doyalson wildlife corridor in the first tranche of council-owned properties to be offered for sale could have been an error but that just doesn’t seem likely given that lists of properties for potential sale have been in circulation since before councillors were suspended so they’ve been seen by plenty of sets of eyes. The whole property sale project appears to have gone behind closed doors. More tranches have not been released for public scrutiny. Do they contain more E2 land?

Community land cannot be sold without reclassification but it was jarring to see all council-owned COSS land zoned E2 while privately-owned deferred matters lands (those that haven’t been placed under the state-wide standard planning instrument because a like-for-like zone doesn’t exist) remained outside current zonings.

Speaking against the recommendation made by staff to Mr Persson at the ordinary council meeting on March 9, Ms Barabara Wells of Macmasters Beach, who is a long-term member of council’s COSS Advisory Group said she was perplexed and disappointed by the agenda item.

“Why are we here tonight changing the zoning of land that needs no further protection,” Ms Wells asked. “The only land in danger of being raped is private land that falls under Local Land Services (LLS).”

The deferral of zoning privately-owned environmental land, some of it earmarked for future acquisition as COSS land, is resulting in clearing of sensitive land by private landholders and council and LLS have very few powers to stop it.

Why zone council-owned COSS land E2 and leave private land as deferred matters? Is there a hidden agenda here? How much of council-owned COSS land, now zoned E2, is operational land that could be put up for sale with very little community consultation? That hasn’t been made clear to the public.

Even E2 COSS land classified as community land could be sold if put through a reclassification process. Reclassification from community to operational land would involve community consultation but we will need to be vigilant and keep a very close eye on council’s land sales project in both the former Wyong and Gosford Councils to detect attempts to sell environmental land.

And the future?

It is disappointing that council went ahead with E2 zoning for council-owned COSS land when, as mentioned at two council meetings by Community Environment Network Executive Member, Mr Gary Chestnut, other proposals to make existing COSS E1 regional park or national park were being considered.

COSS is unique to the Central Coast – a deliberate strategy by a former Gosford Council in the 1970s to buy up our green ridgeline. Initially the strategy was due to the high cost of connecting water to higher land. It was easier to buy it and keep it green than clear it for development. Conservation was a secondary consideration.

Conservation has been a primary consideration for sustaining and expanding COSS since the 1980s and there are ways, such as creating an E1 Regional Park or entering Conservation Agreements with the NSW Biodiversity Certification Trust that could sustain COSS without it being a cost to Council.

Thin edge of the wedge?

Central Coast Council is, of course, looking for ways to make revenue. Tourism is seen as having great potential but attempts to promote the area since amalgamation have largely been failures. We have a council that regularly looks for the path of least resistance rather than putting some effort into innovation.

The mountain bike feasibility study is based on a belief that mountain bike riding is popular and increasing in popularity. The feasibility study discussion paper’s only evidence of growing popularity is bike shop owners commenting that mountain bikes are popular. The building of illegal trails is also pointed to as evidence of unmet demand rather than a lack of education and enforcement.

Council believes building mountain biking facilities could generate tourism and economic benefits. It has paid a consultant to do a desk audit of potential sites to locate regional and local mountain bike facilities. Rumbalara-Katandra-Ferntree and Kincumba Mountain reserves top the list as potential locations.

The feasibility study discussion paper is currently on exhibition (closes Monday, 22 March) and it lacks any information about the ecological and cultural importance of those reserves. It does not include any information about their extraordinary cultural significance to traditional Aboriginal custodians of the area.

Central Coast Council pays lip service to the importance of the rich Aboriginal history and culture found in this region but does very little to protect it. Ms Tracey Howie, a registered Aboriginal Stakeholder with Heritage NSW, said she found the process employed in Council’s currently-exhibited mountain bike feasibility study fundamentally flawed and manifestly inadequate.

“We have at no stage been consulted in regards to this issue,” Ms Howie said.

She said the destruction and illegal impacts to Aboriginal cultural heritage items at Kincumba Mountain due to illegal mountain bike tracks were criminal offences. “Please do not consider Kincumba Mountain for mountain bike riding,” Ms Howie said in a submission to council.

“There are other areas more appropriate. More riders will only add to the damage currently visible throughout this cultural landscape due to the actions of the mountain bike riders. I encourage council to adhere to their responsibilities and obligations to Aboriginal cultural heritage within their LGA and explore efforts to have Kincumba Mountain reserve recognised and registered as an Aboriginal place given its deep connection to local Aboriginal lore and law and the obvious heritage present within the cultural landscape,” she said.

The discussion paper has not quantified the extent of illegal mountain bike tracks at over a dozen sites on the Central Coast. The premise is that by providing mountain bike riders with legitimate trails they will stop building and using illegal ones. This strategy has failed in other locations because mountain bike riding is a dopamine, adrenalin-fuelled sport. Once you’ve conquered a track you want to move on to a new one.

Mountain bike riding is a great sport but is COSS the right location? If you want to have your say submissions are still open. Use this CEN submission template to have your say. Those of us who advocate for sustainability and the protection of endangered species and their habitat do not believe COSS land is a suitable place for mountain bike riding or any other high-impact adrenalin sport. Purpose-built facilities on private land are a much better option. Council has better things to do with its money including closing and remediating illegal tracks.

What can you do?

It feels like the E2 zoning of council-owned COSS land and the idea of turning over a reserve to a regional mountain bike park are the thin edge of a wedge that could do untold damage to our bushland.

Yes, Central Coast Council has a Biodiversity Strategy and we do have lots of green space. We also face expected population growth from 335,000 in 2016 up to 415,000 in 2036. Land will need to be cleared to create 41,500 new dwellings to house the additional 80,000 people who will make the Central Coast their home.

The more land we clear and develop the greater the impact on our waterways and infrastructure, all of which has an impact on our natural environment. We do have lots of green space and council-owned bush reserves but what happened to “Belong, Smart, Green, Responsible and Liveable”?

It’s important not to feel powerless about big issues so make sure you speak up and have your say. During administration you can:

1. Register to speak on a topic of your choice at the open forum

2. Keep an eye on Council meeting agendas and register to speak at a public forum on a matter that is important to you

3. Attend a Council meeting and learn about how it works

4. Write to the administrator

5. Join a local community group or progress association and get involved in your local area

6. Keep an eye on yourvoiceourcoast and write submissions about matters you care about

7. Don’t vote for the reduction in the number of elected councillors in September

8. Support calls for a public inquiry into exactly what happened to council’s finances

9. Pay close attention to who runs for council at the next election and what they really stand for.

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