‘A town square beheading without even letting the public bear witness,’ was how Byron Shire mayor Simon Richardson described the quiet adoption of large-scale development plans for Brunswick Heads holiday parks and reserves last week.
And while fellow councillor Di Woods also condemned the contentious plans by the government-run NSW Crown Holiday Parks Trust corporation, our locally elected state representative, Don Page (Nationals), is remaining mute.
When asked by The Echo for comment on the independent audit’s questionable findings about the public submission report, the retiring MP instead suggested that questions be passed back to the organisation that compiled the report.
It’s unclear if Mr Page even read the submission report and subsequent audit; his reply was, ‘[The Crown Holiday Parks Trust’s media officer] is in a much better position than I regarding any details.’
The mayor slammed the long-serving MP with, ‘I presume Don Page’s silence over the matter is due to utter embarrassment.’
Broken election promise
Notwithstanding the 2006 holiday parks takeover by disgraced NSW minister Tony Kelly from Council and loss of revenue, the mayor also took aim at the government’s claims when elected that it would ‘put locals back in control of planning matters that affect them’.
‘Not only have the Brunswick Heads Plans of Management (POM) kept control over the holiday parks in the hands of the state government appointed “Trust” seeking the highest return; they have put the same operators in charge of ensuring compliance, the setting of public access widths and overall reporting. For example, what was once public access that allowed fishing and picnicking, could, if the manager sees fit, be as narrow as 1.8 metres wide.’
Meanwhile Cr Woods told The Echo, ‘While some concessions have been made over all the parks, there is still no access being granted along the foreshore at The Terrace Reserve Caravan Park, but rather an adjusted plan for the public to walk through the park.’
According to the public submission report – which is of questionable validity due to the audit review – there were 80 supporting submissions to, ‘Provide public access to and along the foreshore at Terrace Reserve’.
Cr Woods said river access and access outside the park boundary was a ‘major point’ from all the public submissions.
She says another issue along the riverbank is the ‘continued erosion along the edge, which is compounded by the permanent residents’ structures that almost hang over the edge.’
‘The Trust representative said that the permanent residents along the edge of the river will be moved by natural attrition.
‘However, there has been a sale to a resident during the last couple of years, with no indication to the purchaser that their structure was in fact in a position that the Crown had previously informed Council during its control was inappropriate, and Council had been informed that the structure had to be moved and in fact had asked that Council relocate all the residents living in structures that were hanging over the edge of the river bank.
‘Council had begun the process, prior to the Crown assuming control of the parks.
‘Under the Trust’s management, it appears that they do not believe that this problem needs urgent attention, and I find that quite at odds with the instructions given to Council, and wonder what is really in store for those residents.’
‘There are a number of concessions that contain a get-out clause, which basically says they could change their mind. For example, a fence being erected along The Terrace Road, while not in the immediate plans, could be seen to be necessary at a later date, while access through the park could be stopped if deemed unsafe.
‘I am of the opinion that once the plans of management have been implemented, and the parks have been given the majority of their upgrades, then the state will see them as a very attractive piece of real estate to be offered up for sale to private enterprise.
‘Not just in Bruns, but places like Evans Head, Ballina, and many other parcels of land, particularly along the coast, will be seen as a way for the state government to get some fast money. Just like the sale of the NSW Lotteries, the electricity infrastructure, the Newcastle port etc.’
NSW Crown Holiday Parks Trust CEO Steve Edmonds has defended his development plans for Bruns, despite similar plans sparking public outrage at the Silver Sands caravan park in Evans Head.
He echoed NSW minister Kevin Humphries reply last week that ‘41 amendments were made to the plans of management as a result of public input,’ and repeated that subject to ‘reasonable conditions’, public access through The Terrace Holiday Park and to Simpsons Creek will continue.
He told The Echo, ‘The public car park and kayak launching facilities will be upgraded as part of this plan.
‘The Trust will progressively relocate existing structures away from foreshore sites to enable the re-establishment of a natural bank profile and the protection and restoration of the vegetation communities as part of its foreshore environmental restoration project.’
While ignoring public concerns over access, Mr Edmonds spruiked the development, saying, ‘Additionally, the Torakina and Banner Park Reserves will benefit from $1m worth of improvements such as playground facilities, boardwalk platform and upgraded amenities which will benefit the local communities, businesses in the area, tourists and other visitors to Brunswick Heads.’
Asked why there was no public announcement over these major developments, Mr Edmonds replied, ‘In accord with due process, it is appropriate to firstly brief local councils in relation to the adoption of plans of management before public announcement. The meeting with Council was arranged to fit with Council availability.’
The mayor meanwhile said that during the last year or so of negotiations with the Holiday Parks managers, ‘it was clear we would struggle to achieve anything like the outcomes the community deserved.
‘But with the state government requiring Council to negotiate, we did so in good faith. I thought if we could maintain public access, we had secured at least something for the community, knowing that ultimately we were being forced to play the tune created for us by the state government.
‘Though tenuous, the community have managed to keep public access along the Brunswick River in front of two parks, with a touch more public access gained on the eastern side of Massey Greene, but access through The Terrace Reserve will be at the discretion of the managers.
‘There is absolutely no compulsion whatever for the permanent dwellings to move away from Simpsons Creek and allow for public access as appropriate. To rub salt in the wounds, this disgraceful management model has been promoted within the wider review of the Crown Lands Act as a model example of efficient and successful management.’
Brunswick Heads chamber of commerce president Peter Wotton told The Echo their reply was still in progress, as ‘one person on this committee is ill at the moment, we have not been able to consider all the issues as yet.’
‘We will have a statement for you on this very important and complex matter soon.’
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.
The establishment of Crown Lands as a possible public trading enterprise has prompted a corporate law firm to advertise its services to prospective corporations and individuals wanting to maximise ‘the return to the government and the community from the use of Crown land.’
Australian corporate law firm Clayton Utz says on its website that, ‘For the private sector, the reforms have the potential to open up new business and operational opportunities.’
Shift in use
The law firm’s webpage, ‘NSW Crown land – a field of opportunities’, spruiks the recommendations in the state government’s White Pa- per, which is now on public submission.
They say it demonstrates, ‘a shift in the use of Crown land towards private entities.’
‘Tenants under Crown land are currently bound by certain provisions of the Crown Lands Act which make it impracticable to operate standard business and development models.
‘Removing restrictions to enable leases to be granted on terms and conditions more regularly found in commercial leases will provide greater flexibility in the use of Crown land.
‘Roughly 42 per cent of land in NSW is Crown land (not including national parks and state forests), with a total value of over $11 billion.’
The law firm says apart from the public trading enterprise aspect of Crown lands, the new legislation will provide for the pay- ment of market rent as the default position under leases of Crown land (with rebates and waivers applied where appropriate); standardise the way in which Crown land is valued (having regard to the hypothetical value of the land as if it were a freehold parcel); require an entity ad- ministering Crown land to evaluate the expected return to be provided to the government and the community when permitting the use of an asset (and taking into ac- count the opportunity cost of allowing an asset to be used in such a way); and implement stronger compliance and enforcement provisions which will provide penalties for damage and unlawful use of Crown land.
NSW Trade & Investment says on its website that the changes are part of a ‘commitment to cutting red tape and updating legislation to improve outcomes.’
Public submissions in response to the White Paper are open until June 20.
For more information visit http://bit.ly/1ojZhIP.
Botched boat eviction plans by bureaucrat change to year lease for Bruns Buccaneer
The tedious and complicated bureaucracy that nearly sank Brunswick Buccaneer boat hire may soon be over. Well, for a year at least.
The Echo reported earlier this year that the manager of the NSW government-run North Coast Holiday Parks (NCHP), Jim Bolger, inexplicably tried to evict the 30-year old business and its operator Ilan Schnitzler a year ago with just four days’ notice.
It came without explanation and Mr Bolger told The Echo at the time, ‘the Trust will not take part in discussing licence or legal issues through the media’.
But in a turnaround, Mr Schnitzler told The Echo that Mr Bolger had a ‘completely changed attitude,’ at their recent meeting, and agreed to allow the boat hire business to continue for a year.
And as the licence makes no guarantees past 12 months, Mr Schnitzler’s solicitor, Claire Lovejoy, told The Echo it was possibly because of the NCHP’s controversial plan of management (POM) for the town- ship, which is yet to be determined.
Interestingly, when on exhibition the POM did not include the Brunswick Buccaneer in the plan or maps and instead promoted a deck- ing area at the site.
As for the way in which Mr Schnitzler had to navigate the bureaucratic smoke and mirrors, be prepared for layers of confusing regulation.
While NSW government departments all appear to share responsibility of issuing permits to access the creek, Mr Schnitzler was advised that NCHP controls the embarkation point at Banner Park. At the high-water mark. Still with us?
Smoke and mirrors
Now that a licence has been signed by NCHP, he has to go back to Crown Lands, NSW Marine Parks and Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) to get the technical tick to legally operate.
‘Previously the departments indicated that permits would be grant- ed after NCHP gave the licence,’ said Ms Lovejoy. ‘Now it appears some of these departments are dragging their heels with emails unanswered for over a month.’
Mr Bolger, who is also NCHP’s media contact, was asked by The Echo for comment on the reversal of his previous eviction intentions but as of deadline there has been no reply.
NCHP controversially took control from Council of public parks and reserves in 2006, and The Echo previously reported that the state government took that revenue away from Council.
Additionally, the community be- came enraged at Mr Bolger’s plans to fence off public lands in the town.
■ Disclosure: Mr Schnitzler’s solicitor is a relative of the reporter
The pressure is on to explain why the NSW deputy premier would come all the way up from Sydney to spruik ‘putting regional NSW back at the heart of government’ yet at the same time syphon money away from it.
Andrew Stoner (also NSW Nationals leader) was in Tweed last Thursday, and travelled up with five other senior NSW MPs for ‘party business’ and to meet Tweed Council, ‘local business owners and groups’.
But the specifics were vague – when asked, no names of the business owners or groups were supplied by Mr Stoner’s media spokesperson.
But it was an opportunity for The Echo to ask Mr Stoner directly whether he would return management of Brunswick Heads’ public caravan parks and Crown reserves back to the Byron Shire Council.
Mr Stoner, who has the power to do so, said simply he ‘hadn’t ruled it out’.
In 2006 the parks were controversially taken over by the state and handed to the North Coast Holiday Parks (NCHP) by former disgraced Labor MP Tony Kelly, with a claim they had been mismanaged.
And ever since, major cost-shifting has occurred: The Echo previously reported that when council ran the parks in 2003–04, it made almost $1 million ($860,553) but under state control in 2011-12, NCHP paid $196,818 from park income to Byron Council.
Byron Shire mayor Simon Richardson is calling for the return of management to Council, and it follows widespread community concern over future development of the parks and reserves by NCHP.
In 2012, former Byron general manager Graeme Faulkner lifted the veil of confidentiality over the report used by the state government to justify the Brunswick Heads parks takeover, and was damning of its claims.
The report was also discredited by most councillors at the time as deceptive and full of misinformation in order to justify stripping Council of its trusteeship of the parks.
Why should visitors to Brunswick Heads have private access to public lands while the residents are excluded?
It was just one of many unanswered questions that were again brought up on Saturday at the second public information session, held by North Coast Holiday Parks (NCHP) manager, Jim Bolger.
Plans by NCHP to develop the town’s three holiday parks and five Crown foreshore reserves are currently on public exhibition.
And at both meetings, residents expressed confusion, anger and exasperation as to why access they had enjoyed over generations should be taken away at NCHP’s discretion.
But it was not only public access and boundary encroachments that were sore points for locals.
Resident Sean O’Meara told The Echo, ‘The town is basically under attack from privatisation,’ referring to the state-run private corporation NCHP.
In backing the claim, elderly long-time Brunswick Heads resident and father of Sean, D’Arcy O’Meara, has told The Echo that local NSW Nationals MP Don Page first brought to his attention ‘this scam’ between the then-NSW Labor government and a ‘network of public servants’.
‘He explained to me the danger of how they would take possession of [the public assets],’ he said, ‘… isolating the community and eventually it would become the property of the state government… so they could sell it or lease it to people such as NCHP and other similar things. Mr Page said, “When we gain power in parliament, we will rectify this; we will dismantle it so it will come back to the local people.”
‘In government they’ve gone to water.’
Mr Page was asked for comment but no reply was received by the time of going to press.
Meanwhile, a closed meeting between Byron Council and NCHP’s Mr Bolger was held on Thursday, presumably to negotiate the long-running public access and boundary issues.
While questions to mayor Simon Richardson remain unanswered, Cr Di Woods told The Echo it was a ‘very intense’ meeting and ‘Council will form a submission for the Crown’s consideration, after it has received legal advice on many aspects in the proposed plans.’
‘My desire is to see an outcome for the community, visitors and the caravan parks, that gives everyone most of what they would like, but importantly, it is Brunswick Heads and its residents that need assurance that the village will not become another Noosa.
‘There are only approximately 1,600 residents, and it would be criminal in my view to destroy their amenity, and to negate the very thing that people come here for and that is the “simple pleasures” on offer for families.
‘I believe that the proposed plans will enable the holiday parks to become more expensive; however, while there’s nothing wrong with commercial interests improving their bottom line.
‘This could exclude those people that this community and business fraternity have worked so hard to attract.’
A short NCHP history
Brunswick Heads residents expressed their anger, disappointment, confusion and frustration last Wednesday at the state-appointed manager who is behind controversial plans to upgrade the town’s three public caravan parks and four Crown coastal reserves.
Several local mums were shocked to learn from NSW Crown Holiday Parks Trust (NCHPT) manager Jim Bolger that under the plans for The Terrace Holiday Park, public access along the Simpsons Creek foreshore, or even through the park, will be closed off or restricted.
The plan involves erecting a 1.8-metre-high steel mesh fence all around the boundary of that park, shutting out locals altogether.
Other complaints by the public ranged from unanswered emails and phone call enquiries to Mr Bolger and a holiday park manager’s poor attitude toward locals.
It comes as Mr Bolger has been appointed media contact for his corporation while also refusing to answer questions on the planned eviction of the Brunswick Buccaneer boat hire business and a percieved conflict of interest, because his holdiay parks also hire boats.
Adding to the chorus of residents critical of Mr Bolger’s management is Byron councillor Di Woods.
She told The Echo, ‘I believe it was the most lacklustre attempt at community consultation I have witnessed, and was not transparent at all.’
‘I think that it should have been held in the community centre, with a presentation to the community and followed by questions and answers with everyone being able to hear the explanation.
‘Someone mentioned to me that Jim was heard to give two different answers to the same question by two individuals. This makes it hard for people to really understand what is truth and what is fiction.’
However, Cr Woods says there is room for negotiation. ‘It is always the case that when a plan is being put forward that the proponent usually asks for “an arm and a leg,” and then negotiations take place. If we had honest and transparent community consultation, with Council perhaps as a mediator, then surely an agreed position could be achieved.’
But what is the business community’s position?
Brunswick Heads chamber of commerce president Todd Buckland says, ‘In 2010 the Brunswick Heads Chamber of Commerce prepared a comprehensive submission on the previous Holiday Parks Plans of Management, and proposed several suggestions and solutions for the various issues they had with those plans.
‘The chamber’s mission is, “To foster a dynamic local business sector, encouraging sustainable and innovative business development, in line with the community’s vision for Brunswick Heads.” Brunswick Heads has many strategic planning documents, including the “Taking Care of Brunswick Tourism Management Plan” and the “Community Economic Transition Plan 2011-2016”, to guide us in our assessment of what is proposed this time around.
‘Over the next month we will be assessing the current plans of management (POM) in light of our mission statement and see which of our concerns have been addressed and which suggestions have been incorporated in the new POMs.
‘We will be making constructive suggestions for anything we feel is an issue.
‘The thrust of our submission will be the same as the previous: we highly value our low-key simple pleasures village lifestyle.
‘We have always been a holiday town and we want to protect it by attracting visitors whose values are aligned with our community values.
‘We want our holiday parks to align with this vision, instead of becoming clones of the holiday parks up and down the coast.
‘We are not so naive as to think that all of our suggestions will be adopted; it just won’t be humanly possible to satisfy everyone’s wishes.
‘However, we will be strongly encouraging the final plans of management to reflect the values and needs of those who live, work and play in Brunswick Heads.’
February 1 meet
Another community information session will be held by Mr Bolger on February 1 in the Memorial Park from 9am to 12pm as part of the local market.