In the first of a series of articles on controversial plans for an eco-lodge within Sydney's Royal National Park, MILES HERBERT discovers an undeveloped road is at the centre of the row.
The eco-lodge proposal for Bournemouth St, Spring Gully, is modest. Six luxury yurts on a parcel of private land situated in the tranquil surrounds of the Royal National Park as a high-end tourist escape.
However, critics claim the ecological cost of building the lodge is too high because it requires compliance with fire safety regulations and the development of a ‘paper road’ for access. The road is not developed and exists on paper only.
When the development application for the proposed lodge was first submitted, the Sutherland Shire Council received 290 objections from the local Bundeena community.
In the ensuing three years, the proposal has sparked a controversial debate about development in an area that remains pristine.
The paper road, Sussex Street, is adjacent to the 5.6 hectare parcel of land that was sold to the developer RVA Australia PTY LTD by Scouts Australia NSW.
The entire development is contingent on the conversion of the street into a 6.5m wide permeable road that provides access to the Beachcomber Track.
The track is an asphalt walkway that extends from the end of Beachcomber Avenue, Bundeena, through the Royal National Park to the southern boundary of the proposed eco-lodge.
Access through Sussex Street is paramount to the eco-lodge’s construction because it will allow vehicles to access the property for building, serve as the primary entry to the property, as well as providing ease of access for the NSW Fire Service to make the property compliant with the Bushfire Safety Authority.
Paper roads are not that uncommon in NSW. These unformed roads were established in the early days of settlement before Crown land was sold into private hands to ensure public access would always be available once the surrounding land was developed. In many cases, the roads were never developed and often known only to the local community.
Bordering the Royal National Park and the adjacent Spring Gully property, Sussex Street is currently covered in bushland, accessed by endangered Pygmy possums and lined with ancient bloodwood mallee trees.
RVA Australia's Mr. Ron Van Ardenne is the owner of the site. The proposal for development of Sussex Street, and use of the Beachcomber Track, is based on what he considers his right of way as the owner of the adjacent property.
Because Sussex Street was created to provide access to the public, he believes he is within his rights to develop and use the road as he sees fit.
In September of 2015, the council agreed with Mr. Van Arden that when Sussex Street was transferred into private hands, ‘the width of Sussex Street is to be preserved as a right of way’ for the owners of the surrounding land and ‘may be used by them as such'.
Professor of Property Law at Deakin University, Samantha Hepburn, says no matter how long the road has gone undeveloped Sussex Street's status as a paper road does provide Van Ardenne with a right of way.
"It may be a walking track or just two wheel ruts in the ground – but it is still a legal road and members of the public have every right to walk or drive on it - legally it is treated as public land."
In response to the proposed road construction on Sussex Street and re-purposing of the Beachcomber Track, the community stands opposed.
The Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) has received over 1200 submissions in opposition and residents of Bundeena see the paper road status of Sussex Street a different way.
Opponents claim that as well as providing access to neighbouring land owners, paper roads were set aside as public land to serve the interests of the community.
Ms Hepburn said government organizations like the council and OEH had a responsibility to the public when deciding on matters of public land.
"If the ownership of the land is a public rather than a private ownership than the government must manage it for the benefit of the public, that is take account of public interest. This increasingly includes social and environmental issues not just economic benefit," she said.
Mr Van Ardenne argues his development will bring tourism to the Royal National Park, and therefore stimulate the local economy.
Critics say it's debateable if the enterprise will enhance tourism to Australia’s second most visited National Park, that already sees 3.2 million people visit it each year.
William Laurance, a Distinguished Research Professor at James Cook University, and researcher on the impacts of land uses and habitat fragmentation, thinks a road cutting through the RNP will do nothing but hurt it.
"The biggest impact of the degradation of national parks is the encroachment of developments around them," Mr Laurance said.
He claims the proposed road on Sussex Street and the entire eco-lodge development clearly does not benefit the wider community.
"He is only thinking about what impacts his pocket book. If you use that definition of the public interest you can justify building anything close to National Parks because it helps people see them while in fact it only helps to destroy the protected areas they border."
There has been substantial and sustained community backlash dating back to 2013 with objections to council, courts, and now the The Office of Environment and Heritage.
Dr Nicole Graham, Senior Lecturer at the UTS Faculty of Law and expert on the legality of land use and its intersection with the environment isn't surprised the proposal is still alive.
Dr Graham sees Spring Gully as another example of NSW government's selling or leasing public lands to commercial interests.
"The privatisation of public land is a rapidly growing trend in the UK and Australia but I hadn’t realised this was on the boil. We may as well start longwall coal mining in the National Park now and build a casino there if we’re going to go down this road."