By Bonnie Cassen
The Manyana community remains at a stalemate over precious habitat, 20 hectares saved from the Black Summer inferno, now at the centre of a local and state debacle. The community is fed up with councillors that refuse to listen to local community consultative bodies and act outside community interests.
Last year, on 11th November, NSW Government Minister for Planning and Public Spaces Rob Stokes’ department wrote to Shoalhaven City Council seeking support for the buyback of the Manyana Beach Estate from the developer Ozy Homes. With Stokes believing $4 million the ultimate figure, his department entered into negotiations with Ozy Homes with the Government willing to cough up half of the cost.
The Department has asked Council to contribute a quarter towards the costs and is seeking support from other state departments with National Parks willing to contribute. It was also suggested Council apply for a NSW Public Spaces Legacy Program to cover its portion or take out a low-cost government loan.
A less than helpful response by Council
The debate that followed at the November Council meeting was marked confidential. The CEO Stephen Dunshea simply reported the outcome as “Council resolved to write to the Department of Planning Industry and Environment advising that Shoalhaven City Council has no funds to contribute to the Manyana residential subdivision acquisition.”
A vague and arrogant response indeed. One can only imagine the rubbish that went on in that closed session. It would have been even more painful to watch than the usual sessions.
If you have never witnessed a Shoalhaven Council meeting, I recommend watching one before the September elections. Only when you see the disgusting, bullying, misogynist behaviour of certain members and the way they manipulate and control what gets through Shoalhaven Council will you truly value the power of your vote and use it wisely.
Mayor Findley had been actively seeking ways to support the Manyana Matters Environment Association (MMEA). She had previously withdrawn motions back in June and September last year, knowing neither would get past the ‘Independent’ bloc, ultimately instead requesting the special report on the buyback as a way forward. To have it marked ‘confidential’ and have such a weak response would have been extremely disappointing for the Mayor and for the constituents she was trying to serve.
Council has remained firm that it won’t contribute financially towards a buyback, and State is adamant it wants at least in principle support from Council that it will pursue grants and agree to rezone the land.
At an extraordinary meeting of Shoalhaven Council held on the 8th December, Mayor Findley presented a ‘Mayoral Minute’ seeking the support of Council for the State to enter into a buyback agreement with Ozy Homes. Mayor Amanda Findley expressed it would provide some peace of mind and some goodwill to a traumatised community before the Christmas break – a bit like an end of year present.
The motion was pretty innocuous. There was nothing in there that any reasonable person could object to. It even asked the State government to find a way to fully fund the acquisition.
However, the motion was lost, voted down by eight councillors, the dreaded ‘Independent’ bloc.
And as Mayor Findley’s worse nightmare came true, they turned it and changed it and made it worse and, with their numbers, voted it through.
Time and time again, members of the bloc side-tracked the issue with lies. Minister Stokes not only dispelled but scoffed at the likelihood of an elevated $23 million compensation package for the developer, future profits not something able to be taken into account. Yet that figure continues to echo around despite Stokes confirming it was more likely to be around the $4 million mark.
Team Watson also constantly refers to the need to compensate the developer for infrastructure costs. There are no infrastructure costs. Nothing has evolved, no work carried out. A temporary fence was erected, some cameras installed, an ecological study undertaken, not a significant amount.
The objections make no sense, no logic and contain minimal fact but this ‘team’ has the numbers to get anything they want through the chamber. Most baffling to everyone is why councillors would go against a community to such an extent, especially in an election year.
The situation remains at a stalemate – Stokes requires Council support, Council refuses to provide it.
Like others in the community, Jorj Lowrey of MMEA is disappointed and angry. “The motion last December didn’t ask for money” she said, “it just asked the Shoalhaven Council to be proactive and provide moral support for the buyback and they haven’t done that.
“What is clear is we don’t have the moral support of Council and that’s what this motion was about. Even three of our Ward Three councillors, Clrs White, Proudfoot and Kitchener, voted against the community’s wishes.
“Matt Kean has indicated that we have his support. He seemed embarrassed that the community had started raising funds when he thought it was ’a given’ that funds would be found, that this land should not be destroyed.”
The Manyana community seems baffled by Shoalhaven Council’s position, especially after the same councillors happily supported a similar motion regarding Mollymook land in Garside Street. These same councillors also pushed the $300 stimulus package, which cost Shoalhaven Council millions and wasn’t taken up by all residents.
The meeting of the Red Head villages
The year may have got off to a quiet start but things are starting to heat up in Manyana. Earlier this month the Red Head Villages Association (RVHA) met and the community had some responses ready for the councillors who sidelined them.
On the meeting agenda was a motion for RVHA to censure the eight Shoalhaven Councillors who opposed the buyback of unburnt forest in Manyana slated for a 182-home housing development. RHVA is the Community Consultative Body recognised by Council for the five villages of Manyana, Cunjurong Point, Berringer, Bendalong and North Bendalong. The community was angry and this was their response.
MMEA member Peter Winkler put the motion forward, seconded by MMEA President Bill Eger who is also with the RFS and fought the Currowan mega-fire. Since early 2020 community members from the five villages have been lobbying all government levels to stop the clearing of the mature forest through a buyback of the land.
The 20 hectare piece of forest, surrounded by the Conjola National Park, is one of the few local areas untouched by the bushfires. It is a rich ecosystem of old trees, hollows and littoral rainforest that has become a refuge for wildlife that escaped the flames and a source of regeneration for burnt bushland.
In a survey of members conducted by RVHA in 2020, an overwhelming majority of respondents (85.5 per cent) expressed opposition to the housing development. Around 15 per cent were content for it to go either way and very few actually wanted the development.
“When the motion was put before Shoalhaven City Council on 8th December 2020 to respect the will of the community and provide in-principle support for a buyback of the land, eight out of the 13 Councillors voted against it” Mr Winkler said, explaining the motion. People need to know who voted against the community. The community isn’t happy.
The motion thanked Mayor Amanda Findley and the four other Councillors who supported the buyback and censured the remaining eight for refusing to support the community’s will.
“As our campaign to save this precious piece of unburnt forest continues, I feel it is important that the record shows those who have helped us and those who have opposed us” said Mr Eger. “Why should we allow these councillors to continue to obstruct the conservation of this block without condemnation from this community.”
The hall was bursting at the seams and the packed house unanimously voted the MMEA motion through.
“The Council is there to do its job, which is to support the community that elected them. It’s their job to support us” said Ms Lowrey who was at the RVHA meeting. “Isn’t that what CCBs are for – to direct councillors on the community’s wishes?”
The community is rightfully perturbed. Many believe the whole process of writing deputations and submissions to councillors is a waste of time and only falls on deaf ears, political minds already made up. Hopes are set that, come September this year, there will be a different, better cohort in Council to deal with. One that listens to all parts of the community, sticks to facts and respects the role of the office. Selfish, self-serving and biased doesn’t exactly suit the job applicant’s description.
The five elected Councillors who voted with the Manyana community were Mayor Amanda Findley, Councillor Annette Alldrick, Councillor Kaye Gartner, Councillor Nina Digiglio and Councillor John Levett.
Ms Lowrey was speaking for the community when she told me it was a real kick in the guts that a developer who has no connection with the area should expect to turn a profit off the back of other people’s losses. The sentiment was strong. So many people lost homes, lost loved ones, lost pets, lost livestock, lost jobs. She told me that some people are still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt. No one in Manyana wants to see the developer profit from this. The community thinks Ozy Homes should break even at best and move on.
MMEA sought a valuation opinion on the Ozy Homes site from BEM Property Consultants and Valuers, the same group used by Stokes’ department. The New Bush Telegraph has obtained a copy of the report and can confirm the opinion is in the range of $3.75million to $4million. The $23 million figure previously thrown around was based on the sale of 180 residential lots, each at a certain profit level.
Certain ethics must exist in the housing equation. Every millimetre of our inhabitable coastline has developer eyes on it. Habitat, forests, ecosystems trashed for housing and developer profit. Developers are among the wealthiest companies in Australia, their wealth derived from the ruination of biodiversity in this country to the extent that little remains today.
Development isn’t the only industry that profits from the destruction of our ecological communities. Forestry, farming, mining and gas extraction also contribute their fair share. The huge consequence of this profit-making – climate change, the warming of our planet, is playing out before our eyes. Extreme weather events occur all around us – drought, catastrophic bushfires, floods and tornadoes – creating havoc on our doorstep. Not someplace else across the world.
Buybacks, compensation and misinformation
Back to development. Ethics should also make us question whether it is fair for a developer to make such high profits when housing is so expensive and unaffordable for so many and a lot of development doesn’t even go into housing but into tourism and holiday rentals; more profit-making and less community.
The community has pledged support for the buy-back with a fundraising campaign already raising $50,000.
But, as Ms Lowrey states, “this starts with Council’s moral support, that’s what Stokes has asked for. No one asked Shoalhaven Council for a monetary contribution at that last meeting. That some councillors are claiming that is a complete lie.
“I don’t think there is much point of trying to persuade these councillors any further. If they don’t understand endangered and vulnerable fauna then I don’t know what it would take to turn them.”
Prior to the 2019/2020 bushfires, the 20 hectares may have been bulldozed without much of a fight. The argument may have been that the wildlife could move on to other areas. That is no longer the case.
“Our message is that these councillors need to be outed,” Bill Eger told me, “because if we have people in Council that are so against the environment that they can’t even see the way forward to support a motion to engage the state government for the best interest of vulnerable species, then what hope does the Shoalhaven have.
“The environment has bugger-all chance of surviving if conservative councillors block progress. The 2019 catastrophic bushfires were a global natural disaster - one of the worst.
“So we have this unbelievable environmental catastrophe on our doorstep, we’ve got this little block of land, a refuge, a Noah’s Ark, a source for all these species to regenerate, and certain councillors are blocking that. We know this is wrong.”
The Manyana group has called for support from environmentalists and conservationists across the country. They know that stopping this development once and for all is too important to leave to power hungry councillors who refuse to listen to fact or reason and do what they can to manipulate the truth. At the 8th December extraordinary meeting many councillors downplayed these submissions because they were made by people outside of the Shoalhaven area. It seems they were also able to downplay the concerns and wishes of their constituent-residents.
Mr Eger’s frustration is palpable. “They don’t even give a reason. They get up there, Guile and the others, and spruik ‘gobble-de-gook’ on whatever. None of it makes any sense. None of it goes towards conservation of these species.”
The community feels the councillors are being short-sighted and are at a loss as to how the community has been misread. This isn’t the first environmental fight the Red Head villages have led. A past logging area, forests have been regenerating for two decades and before the fires had been slowly returning to its special glory. In 1995 the community fought off a State initiated, Council backed, mega-tip in a pristine rainforest gully.
The community, Mr Eger assures me, are up for this fight. “The community will not rest until this block is safe.”
The community remain confident that a buyback can and will take place knowing they have strong support from the State Government, a willingness of the developer to negotiate, and a strong community up for the fight.
“It’s not an enormous amount of money, certainly considering the damage to the area from the fires and that this parcel of land is harbouring these amazing and rare and endangered species.”
The Hidden Agenda
Councillor Patricia White attended the RHVA meeting last week. People who attended told me that Clr White stood up and said that Council had received a letter from the State Government saying they would have to pay back all that money spent on infrastructure development.
The reality is that it’s not developed, it’s bush.They spent a bit of money on fencing and some cameras and some ecological surveys, and not much more.
Ward Three Greens Clr Kaye Gartner was also at the Red Head meeting. Her disbelief at the misinformation contained in Clr White’s address compelled her to also stand and correct those facts.
Councillor Gartner told me “The community had all read the mayoral minute and watched the meeting. The room voted on their deep engagement on this issue. For Clr White to think she could go into that community and whitewash the issue was a big misjudgement on her part.”
Land parcels change hands all the time for all sorts of reasons. The key issue here is negotiating a price and finding appropriate sources to fund the acquisition, and then legislating its special status such as conservation or national park. In cases where significant infrastructure has taken place such as roads being built, then those costs would need be taken into account.
However in this case there is no such infrastructure and any councillors using this point to justify their actions are using a common political tactic known as ‘disruption and distraction’. Interestingly this technique is often used to push forward a hidden agenda and the big unanswered question hanging over all this is why? Why do this bloc of eight councillors persist in opposing the Manyana community when the path to resolution is not only clear but has been made easy for Council?
What do they hope to gain by alienating the community? There is an election coming up – you would think that might make a difference but apparently not. What electoral benefit do these eight see in their position of obstruction? Why don’t they give a reason for their actions? We can only assume they don’t want us to know.
These eight people do not represent Manyana or the broader community who, for the sake of our wildlife alone, would like to see them removed from public office in September and replaced by people who not only represent their constituents but also understand the risks to our environment in this rapidly changing world.
Comment received from Minister Stokes office clears matters up
A spokesperson for the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, made the following reply to our questions just as we were about to ‘go to press’.
“The Department was requested by the minister to explore options for funding the buyback of land - provided that council agreed to contribute. At their meeting on 8 December 2020, the council passed a motion that stipulated they would not contribute to the acquisition, and that they would seek compensation from the NSW Government if it acted to preserve the land.
“It is not clear why the council is taking this position and is not supporting the overwhelming community sentiment on this issue. This is an important issue and it is vital that all parties work collaboratively towards a long-term solution for the Manyana community.”
Stop Press - Stop Press - Stop Press
Manyana forest recognised in ground-breaking WWF-Australia and EDO partnership
Stop Press - ISSUED – 15 April 2021: The unburnt forest in Manyana that locals are fighting to save from clearing has been recognised as crucial habitat for threatened species and wildlife recovery in a powerful new partnership launched today by World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia (WWF-Australia) and the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO).
The Manyana Matters Environmental Association (MMEA) is proud its campaign to save the 20.2 hectares of unburnt bushland in Manyana – located adjacent to the devastated Conjola National Park – is featured in the vitally important “Defending the Unburnt” partnership.
A WWF-Australia video featuring members of the Manyana Matters campaign has been produced to launch the partnership and tell the Manyana Matters story. The video will live on the Manyana Matters Facebook page from today.
“We have known throughout our campaign how important areas of unburnt habitat and old forest are for the survival of threatened species and precious wildlife. That’s why we’ve been fighting so hard to save this unburnt area in Manyana. Since the Black Summer fires, it has become a Noah’s Ark for plant and animal species that survived that devastation,” said Bill Eger, MMEA President.
“To be part of this ground-breaking partnership by leading environmental organisations WWF-Australia and the Environmental Defenders Office, puts our campaign and what we are standing for front and centre for decision-makers including the Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley. We also understand that our fight is part of a bigger struggle to protect what remains of Australia’s critical unburnt habitat against deforestation.”
Manyana is located on the NSW South Coast within the Shoalhaven Local Government Area where 80 per cent of bushland was destroyed in the 2019/2020 Black Summer bushfires. The site locals are campaigning to save falls within the WWF-identified South Coast priority landscape and has been home to threatened greater gliders and grey-headed flying foxes.
The critically endangered swift parrot and scrub turpentine have also previously been recorded on site. In August last year, Minister Ley declared the development project slated for the site ‘a controlled action’ and requested additional assessments from the proponent about the project’s impact on federally listed threatened species. The proponent is yet to submit the additional information requested.
Mr Eger said with the fate of the unburnt forest in Manyana yet to be decided, his community is not giving up its fight.
“Our community has gone through so much to defend this forest,” he said. “Volunteer firefighters risked their lives on New Year’s Eve 2019 and residents, including local wildlife carers June and Lex Frew who suffered deep tissue burns to 50 per cent of their bodies during the bushfires, have campaigned all year against the development that was approved under very different circumstances.
“Working together with WWF-Australia and the EDO will strengthen our efforts to activate existing environmental laws and advocate for stronger laws to enhance protection of landscapes like the Manyana forest.
“If we can’t fight for what we believe in locally, how can we make change on a national or global level?”
About the ‘Defending the Unburnt’ campaign. WWF-Australia has identified six landscapes on the east coast of Australia that include areas of unburnt habitat now serving as vital refuges for threatened plants, animals, and ecological communities. WWF-Australia is funding EDO solicitors to help the community use existing federal and state laws to protect the six landscapes identified, as well as working to improve those laws. While the EDO focuses on legal avenues for protection, WWF-Australia will advocate for up-listing of threatened species and ecological communities that have an increased risk of extinction after the fires. Keep up to date on the Manyana Matters campaign on Facebook.
Feature image: 500 plus local residents attended a peaceful protest using surf boards to create this very clear message - STOP! - to the developers. Photo supplied