Plans to build a shopping centre car park on publicly owned conservation land have been quashed, ending years of anxiety for neighbouring landowners facing the loss of a well treed buffer zone.
In November 2017 the Planning and Environment Court upheld a decision by Redland City Council to refuse an application for development of additional car parks for the Victoria Point Town Centre on an adjacent area of publicly owned bushland.
This 9,125 square metres parcel of land contains 153 large trees with a diameter exceeding 30 cm at chest height, including 109 koala habitat trees.
The Court found that the development proposed by Victoria Point Town Centre’s owners (Lancini Group) didn’t comply with Council’s planning scheme.
Local residents faced many weeks of uncertainty while the developer decided whether or not to take this case to the Court of Appeal.
This week Cr Paul Golle advised that the developer will not appeal the judgement.
Open for business
Council’s actions in recent years to oppose the development are commendable. But this problem was a result of actions by Mayor Karen Williams during her first term as Mayor.
A meeting between the Mayor and representatives of the Lancini Group in April 2014 resulted in Council proposing that the shopping centre’s owners acquire the bushland buffer. The land is owned by the State Government with Council responsible for managing it as trustee.
This plan would supposedly deal with anti-social behaviour in this area which has been the subject of complaints by residents and the shopping centre’s management. over many years.
Court documents reveal that a land acquistion was proposed by Council officers in an email to Lancini Group on 25 June 2014. The concept was fleshed out at a meeting on 18 August in Council Chambers involving Mayor Karen Williams, Council officers and Lancini Group representatives. The Lancini Group then lodged an application to acquire the land.
A few weeks later, a recommendation that Council surrender its trusteeship of the land was submitted to Council. Even though the Council had already proposed to Lancini Group that it acquire the land, and wheels were in motion to make this happen, all that was was said publicly in the mayoral memo was:
Handing the area back to the State will enable other solutions to be explored.
This memo was unanimously approved by councillors at the general meeting held on 8 October 2014. Crs Bishop and Elliott were absent from the meeting.
In passing this motion the Council neglected its responsibility, as trustee of the reserve, to care for the trust land and manage the trust land consistent with achieving the purpose of the reserve. The Land Act requires the trustee to ensure that the community purpose for which the reserve was dedicated is not diminished by granting inappropriate interests over the reserve.
As trustee for this parkland, the Council should have consulted with the community before making decisions to change it’s use from open space bushland to a shopping centre car park. But the Council acted secretively and gave no prior indication of its plans to affected residents – a worrying precedent given that the Council has many other trustee responsibilities in the City.
When residents became aware of what the Council and Lancini Group were proposing to do, in late 2014, they objected. But no one in the Council seemed to be listening to residents. The Council at this time was “Open for Business”.
Council changes tack after the 2016 elections
Local government elections in March 2016 changed the balance of power within Redland City Council such that Mayor Williams no longer had an automatic majority to ram pro-developer “open for business” decisions through the Council.
Soon after the elections, Council voted to ask the State Government to reverse the deal but the Government didn’t cooperate.
After months of assessment, Council’s planning officers recommended that a development application by Lancini Group for converting bushland buffer zone to car parks be approved.
But mindful of continuing community opposition to the proposed deal, councillors voted 6/5 to refuse the application on the casting vote of the Chair (Deputy Mayor Wendy Boglary) at a general meeting on 23 November 2016.
- Crs Gollé, Hewlett, Huges, Bishop, and Boglary voted FOR the refusal motion.
- Crs Elliott, Talty, Gleeson, Edwards and Mitchell voted AGAINST the refusal motion.
Mayor Williams didn’t vote – she was in Tasmania attending an ecotourism conference.
Lancini Group appealed against Council’s refusal. Council to its credit responded effectively, engaged a top tier law farm, and won the court case.
What the Judge said
A proper consultation process in 2014 may well have identified other flaws in this plan which were ultimately exposed in Judge Rackemann’s decision on 23 November 2017. These flaws included that:
- No need for the car park was established by the developer
- Development of the proposed car park, with continuing access via Teak Lane, would not reduce anti-social problems in this area
- The land has environmental values of local significance
- The development proposal clearly and significantly conflicted with the planning scheme
This arrangement was supposedly to solve anti-social problems. But the Lancini Group’s social impact assessment work, undertaken by Mr Warwick Powell, attracted scathing comments from the Judge, who said “…his work was less than thorough and I did not give it much weight.”
Will Council learn from its mistakes?
From this debacle we’ve learnt that the best outcomes are unlikely to be achieved when Council does deals secretively without allowing the community to have a say.
We’ve also learnt that sometimes the Council should overturn recommendations by its planning officers. And its good to know that the Council win court cases when poorly conceived development applications are refused, despite regular comments by some pro-development councillors that Council should not spend ratepayers money defending refusals in court.
And we’ve learnt that residents sometimes need to fight hard against poor decisions by their elected representatives, especially when a council is evenly balanced between councillors who routinely support developers and those who serve the public interest.
Things to do
The Council now should:
1. Secure the bushland buffer zone as a reserve and work with the community and Victoria Point Town Centre to develop and implement a management plan for this land.
2. Review Council processes to ensure that when making decisions about land held in trust, the Council properly discharges its legal obligations as trustee. This should include ample community consultation if ever a change in land use is being contemplated.
Given that this has been at best a huge stuff-up, the CEO should have a good look through the Council’s files to see which personnel were involved in proposing a deal which so clearly conflicted with the planning scheme and Council’s trustee responsibilities.
There may be a need for some investigative and corrective actions.
Earlier stories by Redlands2030
Redland City Bulletin stories
Redlands2030 – 20 January 2018