Saving Spring Gully
Spring Gully, the location of the proposed Bundeena Coast Eco-Lodge, is one of the most bio-diverse areas within the Royal National Park. The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) states, “Spring Gully contains a rich mosaic of endangered ecological communities listed under the Threatened Species Conservation Act”. OEH has also raised concerns about the use of the land for eco-tourism in advice to Sutherland Shire Council, noting the land’s high bio-diversity values. The land is zoned Environmental Conservation.
The Eco-resort plans include clearing over 430 native trees from an area the size of 12 residential housing lots for 6 tents to accommodate up to 12 tourists. The proposed development is located within a critically endangered ecological community which is habitat to Eastern pygmy-possum, Red-crowned toadlet, Powerful owl and sugar gliders. The site is rated an “extreme bushfire danger” by Sutherland Shire Council and the local RFS.
In 2014, then Sutherland Shire Mayor, Kent Johns, wrote to Members of Parliament stating “The land is a logical extension of the Royal National Park. The land should be acquired by the State”. Council’s position was confirmed by current Mayor, Carmelo Pesce in a letter to the Nature Conservation Council of NSW (NCC).
Then Minister for Planning, Rob Stokes also wrote to Professor Don White, Chairperson, NCC advising “Should the owner wish to sell the property I would be pleased to advocate for its purchase by Government if reasonable. I am aware of the values of the site.”
The 5.6 hectare parcel of land was originally gifted to the Scouts as community land during the subdivision of the adjoining residential area of Bundeena in 1963. The land was marketed as a “Recreation Area” on the land sale map. The land has always been considered a high bushfire risk and has remained undisturbed, pristine bushland and wetland. The land enjoyed rate free status for the fifty years it was owned by Scouts, despite remaining unused, because it was deemed public land under the Local Government Act. In fact for decades many maps, including some of the NPWS own maps, showed the land as part of the Royal National Park.
In 2011 the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) wrote to Scouts inviting them to donate the land to the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife for addition to the Royal National Park stating the land had high conservation value.
Instead, Scouts put the land up for sale. In 2013, Scouts refused a competitive purchase offer from the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife, funded by the local community and sold the land to the developer who outbid the Foundation’s offer by $25,000. Ironically, $25,000 was the Valuer General’s valuation of the land at the time.
The land has no road access, is surrounded by the Royal National Park on three sides, and is mainly covered by the deep and highly erodible sands of the forested Jibbon Hill sand dune which spills down into the steep gully to meet the wetlands below. The Bundeena township lies to the north of the wetlands. Jibbon Hill is the largest relic cliff dune and the only intact, naturally vegetated relic cliff dune remaining in the Sydney Basin.
Eureka Award winning scientist, David Keith, Professor of Botany at UNSW and Senior Principal Research Scientist of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, conducted an independent review of the development proposal and found that potential impacts to six endangered ecological communities had not been adequately assessed. These are:
- Coastal Upland Swamp,
- Sydney Freshwater Wetland,
- Bangalay Sand Forest,
- Swamp Sclerophyll Forest,
- Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub (which has recently received a preliminary determination as critically endangered),
- Kurnell Dune Forest.
Professor Keith has determined that the unique bloodwood mallee found in Spring Gully forms part of the rare low forest form of Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub and that the occurrence on the development site is the only known example remaining transitioning from relic cliff dune into sandstone gully forest. The bloodwoods grow from large underground lignotubers that have spread out over enormous areas. Keith states this forest is in the order of hundreds of years old.
Hundreds of the dense and slender mallee bloodwoods will also be cleared from the development site for bushfire protection in addition to the 430 trees also identified for removal.
Every one of these mallee bloodwoods bears scars from sugar glider feeding. Sugar gliders chew incisions through the corky bark of the bloodwoods to release the sweet red sap from the bloodwoods similar to the method people use to tap the syrupy sap from Maple trees. This dense forest provides habitat for Eastern pygmy possum, sugar gliders and Powerful owl.
In October 2014 dozens of these trees were mysteriously felled down and ringbarked overnight in an event dubbed locally as the “Spring Gully Bloodwood Massacre”. The following month the ‘eco’ resort development proposal, located over the site of the bloodwood massacre, was lodged .
Dr Martin Schulz, whose 2011 fauna survey of the Royal National Park is the most comprehensive ever conducted, found that the development proposal fails to adequately assess potential impacts to seventeen threatened fauna species:
- Broad-headed snake,
- Swift parrot,
- Powerful Owl,
- Giant Burrowing Frog,
- Eastern pygmy-possum,
- Rosenberg’s goanna,
- New Holland Mouse,
- Australiasian Bittern,
- Large-eared pied bat,
- Red-crowned toadlet,
- Greater broad-nosed bat,
- Little Lorikeet,
- Eastern Bentwing-bat,
- Varied Sittella,
- Black Bittern,
- Grey-headed flying-fox and
- Beautiful Firetail.
At the core of community concerns over the proposed ‘eco’ resort is bush fire risk and safety.
94 Bush Fire in Spring Gully with spot fire near Eric St ahead of the main front.
Posted by Spring Gully Protection Group on Wednesday, 2 August 2017
The Land and Environment Court has accepted the RFS bushfire safety approval. The RFS approval was based on an acceptance of the bushfire consultant’s report commissioned by the developer. Questions have been raised, however, over the method used to calculate the steep slope of the site which was used to determine the size of an adequate area of tree clearing for the proposed Asset Protection Zone around the development.
The highly creative manner in which the private bushfire consultant measured a fundamental metric, the slope of the site, and their interpretation of the RFS requirements for asset protection zone design, has been called into question by other experts and, in our opinion, exposes the design of the asset protection zone to potential failure in terms of protecting both human life and the environment. Slope is a key metric because it affects the speed at which a wild fire spreads across the land. The RFS standards do not support locating asset protection zones on land which slopes at greater than 18 degrees because it is difficult to prevent fire spreading through the tree canopy on such steeply sloping land and difficult to manage the vegetation due to issues of soil stability and the risk of erosion. With this proposal the slope within the APZ exceeds 18 degrees in large areas and the soil is highly erodible comprising the deep sands of the relic cliff dune.
The location was shown as highly erodible on the NSW Government’s Vulnerable Land Map up to 2015. This mapping has since been removed from on-line public access.
The asset protection zone approved by the RFS is designed to achieve a radiant heat exposure of 29 kilowatts per metre square to the perimeter of the proposed fire refuge building. Both the RFS head office and Land and Environment Court have accepted this design for the fire refuge despite the RFS having published advice that best practice is a maximum radiant heat exposure of 10 kilowatts per metre square.
It is generally accepted that the proposed access road to the development through the Royal National Park cannot provide safe access or evacuation during a bush fire. The statement made by the proponent to the Court that any fire fighter ‘stupid enough’ to go down the fire trail to the proposed development during a bush fire ‘deserves to die’ has not been well received in the community.
The proposal for road access through the Royal National Park to the proposed Bundeena Coast Eco-Lodge was first exhibited by NPWS in June this year. Due to a myriad of issues with both the exhibited material and the conduct of the public exhibition, a modified proposal was placed on public exhibition in July.
Most of the concerns the Spring Gully Protection Group raised during the first exhibition, however, were not addressed in the re-exhibition. The notice of exhibition provided misleading information on basic facts such as the length, width and location of the proposed access road. The group is also concerned that significant information such as the tree removal schedule detailing the more than 430 trees to be cleared from endangered ecological communities on-site, and site plans for the ‘eco’-resort were withheld from public exhibition. Furthermore, diagrams appear to have been redacted from the bushfire consultant’s report.
The fact that the NPWS withheld information provided by the applicant, including the site diagrams referred to in the main proposal, and that some documents were not placed on public exhibition until only a few days before submissions closed, raises our concern as to whether the public were given a fair opportunity to gain a full understanding of the environmental impacts of the proposal. In our opinion, exhibition of the road proposal by NPWS potentially mislead the public and lacked procedural fairness, hindering the public’s ability to fully understand and comment on the proposal.
The Spring Gully Protection Group have also raised concern over the NPWS public exhibition of the proposed gift of five hectares of nearby land by the developer to the Minister as consideration for the proposed road access. The land being offered comprises unformed road reserves, a relic of the 1886 subdivision of the bushland to the south of present-day Bundeena, which was incorporated into the Royal National Park in 1979 to celebrate its Centenary year.
These unmade roads, which criss-cross through the park at Spring Gully, remain under private ownership. The developer claims to have entered into an agreement to purchase the land from the party it identifies as the owner of the unmade roads and has offered to gift the land to the Minister.
Rosemary Marzouk claims that the land belongs to her late Grandmother, Edith Lucy Wolstenholme, who died in 1947. Ms Marzouk claims to be the executrix of the Estate but does not, however, hold title to the land. She is also seeking compensation for the developer’s plan to locate part of the development over the unmade road. Ms Marzouk’s planned sale has caused dispute amongst Edith Wolstenholme’s descendents with other members of the family strongly opposed to the ‘eco’ resort.
Then Minister for the Environment, Mark Speakman, advised the NSW Parliament last year that the NPWS does not recognise the Estate of Edith Wolstenholme as the owner of the unmade road reserves.
The Spring Gully Protection Group calls into question the decision by NPWS to exhibit the proposed gift of this land given that ownership of the land is in dispute. Furthermore, the group has obtained expert legal opinion that the proposed plan of subdivision of the unmade roads, which NPWS also exhibited, is illegal.
The Spring Gully Protection Group has obtained documents under freedom of information law (the Government Information Public Access Act, or GIPA Act) which reveal that internal approval to purchase the ‘eco’ resort site was made by NPWS in 2013 but that the purchase decision was not pursued when the then Acting Area Manager for the Royal National Park wrote an internal memo stating that the NPWS should avoid “compromising” then Minister for the Environment, Robyn Parker.
The NPWS has since disclosed that they were in talks with the developer over their planned eco-tourist resort at the same time that the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife were bidding to purchase the land under an in-principal agreement with NPWS for the land to be added to the Royal National Park.
Cr Carol Provan has disclosed that she was involved in talks with the developer and the plans for an eco-resort on the site whilst she was Mayor, prior to Scouts even placing the land on the market. The land at that time was zoned for community use and rate exempt as a public place.
A report commissioned by Sutherland Shire Council in 2013, marked “draft and confidential”, which the Spring Gully Protection Group viewed under freedom of information law (the GIPA Act) ranked the former Scout land at the bottom of 25 potential tourist accommodation sites assessed. The highly environmentally sensitive, bushfire prone site was scored 2 out of 10 for tourism accommodation potential. The report has never been publicly released.
Following Scouts sale of their land to RVA Australia Pty Ltd in mid-2013, the company’s sole director was appointed to Sutherland Shire Council’s tourism committee.
Later in 2013, Sutherland Shire Council convened a stakeholder meeting seeking cooperation from NPWS over arrangements to make an alternative, more environmentally suitable, already cleared site available to locate the fire refuge and associated asset protection zone required for the ‘eco’ resort proposal. The NPWS, however, walked away from those talks stating they do not do land deals. Why then, did the NPWS exhibit the developer’s proposed “gift” of land in exchange for the proposed road through the Royal National Park to the proposed eco-lodge in June 2017?
The future conservation of Spring Gully and the protection of values of the Royal National Park rests with the NSW Government. The Minister for the Environment is currently considering the proposal for road access via the Royal National Park which is required for the development to proceed.