Perhaps the biggest-ever development of Brunswick Heads has been approved by the coalition state government; however, it remarkably comes without any press release, publicity or notification.
Additionally, the independent audit that accompanies the public submission report casts doubt on the state government’s decision to approve ambitious plans to develop the town’s three holiday parks and Crown reserves.
The decision came as the government’s Crown Lands White Paper (www.bit.ly/1rllofw) closed for public submission on June 20. It recommended privatising large swathes of public lands for commercial activity.
A tip-off from an Echo reader pointed to the announcement for Bruns on the NSW Crown Lands website (bit.ly/1kvpYov), which says the plans of management (POMs), have ‘been approved and adopted by the minister on June 2, 2014’.
The website also contains the POMs for Ferry Reserve, Massey Green and Terrace Reserve holiday parks and other Brunswick Heads Crown foreshore reserves.
Audit casts doubt on approval decision
To gain the minister’s approval, a public submission report and audit were required to examine the methodology employed to collate the public’s comments over the proposal.
The submission report claims that the issues have been addressed for 1,425 individual issues that arose from 158 public submissions and two petitions presented, one of which had 2,095 signatures.
But the audit that examined the report is critical of the lack of recognition of ‘significant and frequently raised issues that were beyond the scope of the planning process’.
Authored by Dr John Mackenzie, the audit also questions the methodology used in collating the submissions, undertaken by North Coast Holiday Parks (NCHP) manager Jim Bolger.
It’s the latest in a long-running dispute between the NSW government and locals and councillors, sparked in 2006 after the government took control of public assets from the cash-strapped Byron Council, resulting in a loss of revenue.
The revamp plans went on exhibition late last year, and NCHP’s Bolger faced an angry public at his two public information sessions over various issues. They included the removal of public-access areas previously accessed and the continuing encroachment onto public lands to accommodate holiday park expansion.
And bad press has hounded Bolger for other reasons; The Echo reported that he inexplicably tried to evict the long-established Brunswick Buccaneer boat-hire business with just four days’ notice in April last year. At the time of his POM exhibition period, Bolger refused to answer The Echo’s questions and omitted any reference to the 30-year-old tourist attraction in his POMs.
Bolger’s actions sparked a petition, with thousands of signatures collected in support of retaining the tourist attraction. While then-Crown Lands minister Andrew Stoner (Nationals) refused to comment, local NSW MP Don Page (Nationals) made a remarkable ‘on the run’ policy announcement and suggested the operator apply for permission through Bolger’s POM.
Later a year-long agreement was later reached between Bolger and its current operator, Ilan Schnitzler.
Has Bolger listened?
So with such large-scale changes to Bruns, has Bolger listened to the community?
Not according to Greens MLC Jan Barham and former Byron Shire mayor, who joined residents in roundly condemning the plans.
She told The Echo the plan’s adoption ‘Ilustrates that the state is yet another opportunistic developer, with power to approve its own developments.’
‘The community spoke out on many issues regarding the recent and past draft plans for the idyllic and significant Brunswick sites. What the government has accepted for the low-key village of Brunswick is an over- development that will create a standard of development that is out of character with the town and will change the feel and look of Brunswick.’
Ms Barham also warned the plans ‘will out-compete private tourism operators with development that would not be acceptable by a private operator. Also it appears that the opportunity to display best-practice environmental and community planning principles has not been a consideration.’
Meanwhile resident Patricia Warren described the outcome as ‘peanuts for the peasants,’ and Bolger’s responses to public concerns as ‘purely cosmetic’.
She is just one of a group of residents who have been active in opposing NCHP’s takeover and subsequent expansion plans. Ms Warren told The Echo, ‘The comments/recommendations made [by NCHP regarding the submissions] do not address the contentious issues of boundaries and, by default, the minister and his advisers have opposed the community’s strong and continued opposition to these land grabs.’
Public access ‘conditional’
As for one of the most contentious issues – public foreshore access along Simpsons Creek at Terrace Reserve Holiday Park – NCHP responded to public concerns with, ‘Conditional access… is provided subject to reasonable conditions.’ Ms Warren replied that contrary to strong public opposition, this allows a determination to ‘privatise’ sites for long-term tenants.
Similarly resident Sean O’Meara was outraged at the outcome and pointed to the vague and noncommittal language NCHP used in his reply to community concerns.
Phrases such as ‘Likely to be relaxed’, ‘fences only installed as last resort’, ‘we will endeavour’ and ‘have noted and will consider,’ can be found throughout the report.
‘This response holds them to nothing and they will go on as usual if something is not done,’ says O’Meara.
‘I challenge Bolger to scrape together more than 20 names of Brunswick Heads locals who agree with his actions and think it is okay to privatise our public foreshore areas and block local families and tourists from playing in the parks and swimming in the rivers.
‘They have used [these areas] for a hundred years, so why should they now be fenced off for the exclusive use of those who can afford to pay?’
While the audit concluded the methodology used for asessing submissions was ‘sound, comprehensive, thorough and reliable,’ Dr Mackenzie paradoxically describes that dividing submissions into the categories of support/neutral/object as ‘not considered reliable for statistical purposes.’
Additionally discrepancies were observed, which yielded ‘significantly different results’ and ‘potential confusion’.
But most cogent was that, ‘several significant and frequently raised issues that were beyond the scope of the planning process have not been included in the analysis.’
‘For example, issues raised concerning park governance, the inconsistency of the POMs with the regional character and the community engagement process featured prominently in the reviewed submissions but were not included in the analysis. In each case, these issues were considered by NSWCHPT to be beyond the scope of the POMs or the Trust. However, the inclusion of these issues in the issue categories should be considered. This would not result in any changes to the recommendations, but could also provide decision-makers and the community with a more comprehensive understanding of points raised in the submissions.’
MP Humphries approved plans
Despite the audit’s findings, cost-shifting and the public calls for the return of the assets, the new minister responsible for Crown Lands, Kevin Humphries, is predictably standing by his decision.
His spokesperson told The Echo that ‘there are no plans,’ to change Crown reserves management in Brunswick Heads. And while the spokesperson refused to acknowledge the audit’s claims that major issues outside the scope were ignored, they instead claimed that the ‘methodology used by the Trust was sound and the findings were comprehensive, thorough and reliable.’
They added that the Trust board made ‘41 changes in terms of public access, commercial activities and other key elements of the plans.’
Mayor Simon Richardson, councillor Di Woods and Brunswick Heads chamber of commerce president, Peter Wotten, have told The Echo they will provide comment next week. Comment was also sought from local state MP Don Page, but nothing was received by deadline.