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Cate Faehrmann
NSW Greens MP
1 January 2008

Most of us can’t imagine a future without our small beach towns: the turquoise water, fresh air, the village atmosphere and bushland full of wildlife. This is our shared heritage.

But up and down our coast, the NSW Liberal-National government has given developers the green light to bulldoze thousands of hectares of bushland for development. From Tura Beach on the far south coast to Kingscliff in the Tweed, inappropriate and unsustainable developments are being considered by councils and Regional Planning Panels. Alongside new approvals, old ones that have lain dormant for decades are springing back to life. Known as “Zombie” or “Legacy” development approvals (DAs) they’ve sidestepped current planning laws, including the need to undertake ecological and cultural heritage impact assessments. If they are allowed to go ahead, the cumulative impact of these developments will be devastating, resulting in thousands of hectares of coastal bushland being cleared. Bushland which, particularly after the Black Summer fires, is providing critical refuge for threatened species like koalas, Greater Gliders, glossy black cockatoos, swift parrots, Powerful Owls and many others.

Many of these developments are planned on floodplains and wetlands or in areas of high bushfire risk: places where we should not be building homes given the inevitable increase in severity and frequency of extreme weather events NSW faces due to the climate crisis. These small coastal villages also just don’t have the services and infrastructure to cope with a large increase in residents. Make no mistake, if these developments go ahead, they will do irreversible damage to our coastal towns and bushland environments that we all love so much.

The NSW Government is using the housing crisis to provide cover for their real agenda - lining the pockets of developers who just want to make a quick buck with scant regard for the communities and habitat they’ll destroy in the process. Building new suburbs in coastal bushland will do nothing to make housing more affordable for those who need it most. In fact, in many of the villages under threat up to two-thirds of existing housing lies vacant for much of the year, because they’re holiday lets.

We need reform to discourage this, not more housing for wealthy Sydneysiders to add to their property portfolios. The good news is that communities all along the coast are fighting back.

This report highlights some of those campaigns where local communities are putting up an incredible fight to stop developments and save their towns and local wildlife.

This report will connect the dots to show how the NSW planning system is allowing inappropriate and unsustainable developments to change the face of the NSW coast as we know and love it. The campaign to save our coastal villages and environment will only be won by coming together and sounding the alarm about this developer onslaught that is concreting our coast.

EXTINCTION CRISIS: THREATENED SPECIES AT RISK

Most of these coastal developments have one thing in common: the sites are crucial habitat for threatened species.

Koalas, Greater Gliders, Swift Parrots, Powerful Owls and Glossy Black Cockatoos call many of these sites home.

Along with Long-nosed Potoroos, Yellow-bellied Gliders, Eastern Pygmy Possums, Gang Gang Cockatoos, Barking Owls, Greyheaded flying-foxes, Wallum Froglets, Eastern False Pipistrelles, East Coast Freetail Bats, Mainland Dusky Antechinus’, Superb Lyrebirds, Pilot Birds, Mustard-Bellied Snakes, Little Bent-wing Bats, Large Bent-winged Bats,Greater Broad-nosed Bats and many more.

There are also several Endangered Ecological Communities at risk including Swamp Oak Forest and Bangalay Sand Forest, while at least one site is one of only three places in the world where a particular plant species grows: the Merimbula Star-Hair at Tura Beach. 

The Federal State of the Environment Report, released in July 2022, highlights Australia's shameful position as having lost more mammals to extinction than any other continent. It names habitat loss as a key driver of this crisis. The Black Summer bushfires burnt through more than 5 ½ million hectares of largely forested areas killing or displacing billions of native animals. 

It should have been our wake up call. We have to protect the habitat that’s left if we are to avoid some of the threatened species highlighted in this report going extinct.

building on the floodplains

2022 showed the catastrophic impacts of building in flood-prone zones now that the climate emergency is upon us. Between February and July, 98 LGAs across NSW were declared disaster zones due to flooding, and nine lives were lost.

The Inquiries that followed pointed not only to the impacts of climate change, but to the “unchecked and ill-planned development” that has led to the filling and raising of floodplains, the redirecting of waterways, overburdening of drainage systems, and reliance on unsafe locations for affordable housing. 

Residents of devastated areas, including in Lismore and the surrounding Northern Rivers and in Windsor and Richmond in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley, have questioned whether it is possible to recover and rebuild in the same location. As the NSW Flood Inquiry led by Mick Fuller and Professor Mary O’Kane reported, it’s clear that “too much [is] already built, being built or planned to be built in areas exposed to flood risk.”

But the development onslaught in areas that shouldn’t be built upon continues apace. developments are planned in areas at risk of flooding along the entire coast - across the low-lying land of the Northern Rivers and Clarence catchments,on wetlands at South West Rocks and in parts of the south coast.

This not only devastates wetlands and rivers and the species that live in them, but also puts massive pressure on the drainage system, often exposing existing homes to damage for the first time. 

The climate crisis must mean that no more housing can be built on floodplains. 

exposed to fire

Most of these coastal developments share another risk factor: fire.

Many are surrounded by bushland with only one road in and out of town. During the Black Summer fires of 2019-2020, many of the coastal communities mentioned in this report were fighting to protect their homes, or fleeing for their lives.

With the climate emergency upon us, building yet more houses in these fire-prone areas places even more communities at serious risk. 

Some of these bushland blocks at risk provided critical refuge for animals fleeing the catastrophic fires. In several cases, locals are horrified to find that land they fought for and miraculously saved from the fires is now under direct threat from clearing and development. Post-fire these precious patches of forest have become havens for wildlife and locals are desperate to protect these “Noah’s Ark” forests from the bulldozers.'

Threatened Species

Countless native plants and animals are threatened by these developments. We’ve chosen to highlight 6 iconic species at risk of extinction. This map shows some of the development sites where we know they are at risk.

Koala 

Where it lives

Eucalypt woodlands and forests, mostly on the NSW central, north and south coasts, as well as the southern and northern tablelands and Blue Mountains.

Why it’s threatened

Loss and fragmentation of habitat, vehicle strike, predation by feral and domestic dogs, koala disease, fire, heat stress, climate change

Conservation status

Endangered (NSW and Commonwealth)

South-eastern Glossy Black Cockatoo

Where it lives

Small remaining pockets of habitat throughout eastern NSW

Why it’s threatened

Loss of habitat, she-oak feed trees and nesting hollows due to development, logging, drought, fire and climate change

Conservation status

Vulnerable (Commonwealth); Vulnerable (NSW)

Greater Glider

Where it lives

Small remaining pockets of habitat throughout eastern NSW

Why it’s threatened

Loss of hollow-bearing habitat trees and due to land clearing, logging, bushfires and climate change

Conservation status

Endangered (Commonwealth); no NSW listing

Swift Parrot

Where it lives

Spends February to October on the NSW coast and south west slopes where eucalypts are flowering, with summer breeding grounds in Tasmania.

Why it’s threatened

Habitat loss due to clearing for residential and industrial development, agriculture and logging; drought; fire; climate change; competition with Noisy Miners and introduced bee and bird species

Conservation status

Critically endangered (Commonwealth); endangered (NSW)

Powerful Owl

Where it lives

Large sclerophyll forests in eastern NSW; now rare inland and decreasing in density on the coast

Why it’s threatened

Loss and fragmentation of habitat woodlands due to land clearing for residential development, agriculture and logging; loss of prey species including the Greater Glider

Conservation status

Vulnerable (NSW)

Coastal Emu (Population in NSW North Coast Bioregion and Port Stephens LGA)

Where it lives

Predominantly in open lowland habitats, including grasslands, shrubland, and open and shrubby woodlands. Formerly widespread in north-eastern NSW, the emu population has continued to contract and is now restricted to coastal and near-coastal areas between Evans Head and Red Rock. This endangered population is the last known population in northern coastal NSW.

Why it’s threatened

Loss and fragmentation of habitat due to urban, agricultural and rural development; fire; impacts of continued local extinctions, isolation of individuals and groups.

Conservation status

Endangered population (NSW)

a plan for developers, not the housing crisis

In response to the housing crisis, the NSW Government has set targets for 400,000 new homes to be built in NSW, 127,000 of them in regional areas. It’s clear that coastal bushland and communities will be sacrificed to achieve this goal. 

In October 2021, the Government established a Regional Housing Taskforce to “unblock and accelerate new housing capacity in regional NSW” and “fast-track the supply of shovel-ready land.” Nowhere in any of the Taskforce’s Terms of Reference, recommendations, or findings is the environment or sustainability mentioned. 

Incentives are being offered to councils that have been identified as “high-growth”, with a total pool of $30 million being handed out to speed up their assessments of development applications and rezonings. Eligible coastal councils include Ballina, Bega Valley, Central Coast, Eurobodalla, Kempsey, Lismore, Mid-Coast, Richmond Valley and Tweed Shire - places that are all seeing a significant uptick in development. 

In small towns with limited resources for infrastructure and services, these funds can be a strong incentive to approve new development applications, resulting in councils approving housing developments that are putting current and future residents at risk. Not to mention our precious Aussie wildlife. 

Exploiting the Housing Crisis

There is no doubt that NSW is in the midst of a housing crisis. Home ownership is rapidly declining, while soaring rents are forcing people out of their homes and towns and into homelessness.

People in regional coastal areas are especially struggling, with the median price of regional houses now over $800,000 and rents exploding by 30% or more. 

The NSW Government’s answer is to let developers build unaffordable houses in all the wrong places, while doing nothing to address the huge unmet demand for social housing and rental availability. 

The last census showed that 10 percent of Australia’s homes were lying empty, with 300,000 of these in New South Wales. Most of these homes were not available for rent: they were simply not being used.

Thanks to the proliferation of holiday rentals, the rate of vacancy in small coastal towns is stratospheric. On the south coast, villages within easy driving distance of Sydney have vacancy rates edging close to 70%. On the north coast, an ever-increasing number of short-term holiday lets is forcing up prices and driving out people who have lived in the area for decades.

So won’t these new developments fix that? Well, no. The evidence shows that, far from providing affordable housing to those in the community who need it like essential workers and young families, newly built homes are sold for current market value, often to people outside the local area. 

The narrative that we need new builds is a simplistic one that only serves the interests of developers, not local communities. It doesn’t tell us what kinds of houses are needed, where they should be built, who they will be sold to or for what prices.

Large housing developments in sensitive coastal areas won’t take the heat out of the housing crisis, but once the damage is done to our coastal villages and to threatened species habitat there’s no turning back.

zombie da's

In a large number of cases, the approvals for these developments were granted decades ago. They’ve been termed "zombie” or “sleeper” DAs because they’ve been lying inactive for years and have only recently been brought back to life.

Under current planning laws, development consents lapse after five years if works have not begun on the site. However, until recently an approval could be kept alive indefinitely by even minor works such as putting a stake in the ground. Development approvals granted before the laws were changed still remain valid, which means approvals as far back as the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s can still be activated and developed. 

This defect in our planning laws is now being exploited all over the state in villages like Culburra Beach, Manyana, Tuross Heads, Kingscliff and Tura Beach. Back when land was cheap, developers bought up massive bush blocks, sought approval for subdivisions and then waited.

At the time they were approved for development decades ago there was no requirement for environmental and cultural heritage impact assessments, let alone climate risk. These development consents were also given at a time when community values of environmental protection and custodianship for future generations were nowhere near as strong as they are now.  

Regardless of when these DAs were approved, it’s unacceptable that in this era of climate and ecological awareness, these developers get to avoid complying with current laws and community expectations.

With existing approvals in place and dodging most planning requirements the decisions about where and when to build are left up to the developer. These Zombie DAs allow developers to release land at a pace that maximises their profits while wrecking communities and the environment in the process.

In NSW, there are thousands of these DAs currently in progress or waiting to be resurrected.

communities fighting back

Our planning laws have eroded over time, meaning communities have less and less say in decisions that impact them. In most cases the community is being ignored and developments being approved despite all the risks and impacts discussed in this report.

The good news is, however, that communities are standing up, organising and pushing back. Up and down the coast resident action groups have formed to draw attention to the damage being done. They’re holding protests and town hall meetings, making videos, lodging submissions, documenting wildlife, speaking to the media, writing to their elected representatives, and if it comes down to it, standing in front of bulldozers. They’re not giving up, not until the last tree is saved.

And some of them are even winning (see the inspiring case study of the community who saved Scotts Head)!

In an effort to highlight the cumulative impact of these potential developments and allow coastal communities to share information and resources a statewide alliance has been formed. By connecting communities with common interests and goals, local resident action groups multiply the impact of their campaigns and also join together to demand that reform occurs at the state level.

By sharing resources, information and determination, communities are building a movement to stop the destructive developments threatening the NSW coast and to reform our planning laws to protect sensitive coastal environments and communities.

 

HOW TO SAVE OUR COASTS

It’s clear that the NSW planning system is failing communities and the environment and needs serious reform. Below are steps that the NSW Government must take to stop the developer onslaught wrecking our precious coasts forever and to restore faith in the planning process.

Coastal communities are calling for a moratorium on coastal development until the NSW Government has taken steps to:

Protect Coastal Environments

By prohibiting roads and developments that impact ecologically sensitive environments including Threatened Species Habitat and Endangered Ecological Communities and adding ecologically sensitive land to the protected area network. 

Consider Climate Change

By assessing and mapping areas vulnerable to floods, bushfires and sea level rise now and in the future and prohibiting development in those areas while resourcing and requiring local council’s to develop and update master bushfire and flood plans for their LGA.

Ensure Infrastructure and Services are in Place

The Government must place requirements for adequate infrastructure and services before new housing developments can be built.

Put Power Back in the Hands of Local Communities

By scrapping Regional Planning Panels and placing development approvals back into the hands of local councils, with joint council planning decisions over inter-regional developments.

Clean up Local Councils

By banning property developers and real estate agents from sitting on council, strengthening disclosure requirements for counsellors and giving whistleblower protections to council staff to ensure councils make the best decisions for their community.

End Zombie Development Approvals

By forcing existing Development Approvals over 5 years old to be reassessed through the planning system with inappropriate approvals forced to redesign, take a land swap or receive compensation where appropriate.

Assess the Cumulative Impacts of Development

The Government must require councils to develop LGA Master Plans that properly assess the cumulative impacts of development on ecologically sensitive coastal ecosystems including threatened species habitat.

Make Ecological Assessments Transparent and Independent

By making developers use independent ecological assessors provided by the department instead of being able to shop around for experts that enable development.

Reign in Short Term Holiday Lets

By giving councils the power to regulate and limit short term holiday lets, freeing up regional housing stock.

ThankS

It is with deep gratitude to the communities of coastal NSW that we publish this report. Every site study here has been brought to my attention by locals who have been campaigning hard for change, in many cases for years.

Without your passion for your local environment and wildlife, your devotion to your community and your determination, these inappropriate and destructive developments will go ahead unhindered. It is only because of you that there is any hope they can be stopped.

We will keep working with you until every one of these sites is protected and we get the sensible planning reforms NSW so urgently needs to protect communities and our precious environment.

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Cate Faehrmann
NSW Greens MP
1 January 2008
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