NEWS THAT MATTERS

Flogging off natural gems for peanuts

Documents prove that Council flogged off environmentally important land at a bargain-basement-price to a developer - and should buy it back! At the same time the Property and Development arm of Central Coast Council recommended environmental land at Doyalson for sale as “surplus to council’s current and future needs”, its environmental staff were working on a conservation agreement to have it permanently protected, according to documents shared with the Community Environment Network (CEN).

Council Administrator Rik Hart and Council CEO David Farmer need to explain why one of the highest value pieces of environmental land on the Central Coast was sold for a song to a developer - explain why it was even sold at all.

19 April 2023

 

CEN is now calling for an independent investigation of the sale and for the land to be repurchased by Central Coast Council and made part of the Coastal Open Space System (COSS) – such is its environmental value.

 

CEN Chair, Mr Gary Chestnut, said he had been corresponding with Central Coast Council and had attended multiple meetings since December 2020 to try to get to the bottom of how such valuable conservation land at Thomson Vale Road Doyalson could have possibly been included in Tranche 1 of Central Coast Council’s asset sales program.

 

“The Administrator told me the matter was closed. The CEO refused to answer my questions. The former Minister for Local Government referred me back to the council. My inquiries about this land have been stonewalled at every turn,” Mr Chestnut said.

 

“Other land was arbitrarily taken off the Tranche 1 list following requests by the community and additional allotments were taken off the list at the whim of the Interim Administrator, but every effort to save Thompson Vale Road from sale was ignored,” he said.

 

“A letter I received from the Council’s former Chief Financial Officer even denied that the council was preparing to enter a conservation agreement for this land.

 

“Now we have access to documents, that Central Coast Council resisted releasing, that clearly indicate this land should have been protected. It should not have been sold,” he said. “To add insult to injury it was purchased by the former Wyong Council in 2014 for $7 million and sold in 2022 for $5.5 million. That is a capital loss, no matter how you look at it.

 

“How and why did this happen? Council’s CEO David Farmer has said the urgent circumstances of the asset sale program, following council’s cashflow crisis, needed to be taken into consideration. Why then was the purchaser of this land offered an extended settlement period? Why were the community members of Council’s COSS advisory committee treated with disrespect when the committee sought to find out how the Doyalson land was included in Tranche 1?

 

“Why was Council’s valuer who recommended that Council ‘undertake a biodiversity study … to determine whether any biodiversity credits are obtainable’ not informed that an accredited biodiversity consultant had told Council that the site generated 404 biodiversity credits? The biodiversity credits were known to Council, yet the valuer was not informed even though the valuation report states that if the site generated any biodiversity credits it would have increased the valuation.”

 

Mr Chestnut said documents obtained under Government Information Public Access (GIPA) showed the council spent significant staff resources between 2018 and 2020 to prepare a stewardship agreement to protect the land under the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 (BCA).

 

He said the documents confirmed that the Doyalson land has recorded on site eight different threatened species and an Endangered Ecological Community (ECC). In addition, one of the documents identified the site contained suitable habitat for a further 11 threatened species. This means the site has the potential for 19 threatened species including the ECC. ECC’s are plant communities that are under threat and are only found in a unique location.

 

The documents identified that Council’s current zoning of C2 Environmental Conservation on the site does not adequately capture all the ECC on the site.

 

“It has to be one of the highest value pieces of environmental land on the Central Coast because it is a potential home to 19 threatened species, the ECC and centrally located with a regionally significant wildlife corridor,” Mr Chestnut said.

 

Mr Chestnut used a “Biodiversity Credits Pricing Spreadsheet”, also released via GIPA, to calculate the value of the land in biodiversity credits. He came up with a ballpark figure of $2.7 million.

 

“The council could have received long-term funding from the state to care for the land,” Mr Chestnut said. “The Biodiversity Conservation Trust (BCT) would hold the $2.7 million in an account and would give the council money each year in perpetuity to care for the land,” he said.

 

Shortly after it was sold by Council, the land at Doyalson was the subject of a Stop Work Order under the BCA for alleged illegal clearing of native flora. That investigation is ongoing.

 

“CEN will be discussing its options with the new Minister for the Central Coast to have this transaction independently scrutinised as quickly as possible,” Mr Chestnut said.

 

“The inappropriate development of this land could have significant negative consequences for the health of the Tuggerah Lakes system – that is how important it is to get this land back into public hands,” he said.

 

“The director who signed off on the staff recommendation to sell the land should have checked with other directors about its conservation value. The Acting Chief Executive Officer (ACEO) who was responsible for placing it on the Council agenda should have conducted rigorous checks, particularly given the comment in the staff report about the potential “loss of a proposed Biodiversity Stewardship Agreement site.”

 

 

Mr Chestnut understands and appreciates that when the Interim Administrator, ACEO and Directors were faced with the financial crisis in November 2020, hard decisions had to be made.

 

“Notwithstanding that hard decisions had to be made in November 2022, there is a responsibility that decisions are made on accurate and informed information,” he said.

 

“The public has a right to know why these checks and balances, required at law, did not work and CEN will keep working to ensure that happens, if not for the future protection of this environmental gem, then to make sure this does not happen again. Not only has the community the right to know how the decision was made, but when the community raised concerns on multiple occasions Council failed to provide the facts and promoted an alternative story that had no factual basis.”

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