It’s been called a mini - Darling Harbour – a residential complex of 5000 apartments on the shores of Sydney's Cooks River. In an investigative series, Central News looks at the public impacts and the key players behind the controversial project.
It’s the brainchild of millionaire property developer John Boyd. Mr Boyd keeps a low profile amongst Sydney’s business elite – but he has the ear of influential power-brokers such as Alan Jones.
Mr Boyd’s proposed Cooks Cove development rests on a complicated deal involving the cash-strapped Kogarah Golf Club, a large tract of public land – and 800,000 cubic metres of dirt.
If the deal comes off, Mr Boyd will build his mini - Darling Harbour - with box-seat views of Sydney Airport and Botany Bay - on the site of the current Kogarah Golf Course.
In return, the Golf Club will get a brand-new 18-hole course, with a new football stadium, sports fields and community facilities alongside – a redevelopment with a hefty price tag of $100 million, and Mr Boyd as preferred developer.
There’s just one hitch: the site of the proposed new golf course covers 52 hectares of public land: a mosaic of parks, playgrounds, bike tracks, sports grounds – and protected wetlands which are an important habitat for the endangered green and gold bellfrog.
Some resident groups vigorously oppose the Cooks Cove development, which is a hot-button issue in this weekend’s elections for the new Bayside Council.
And documents obtained by Central News show that several key State governments have raised fundamental objections to the project. In a letter from Roads and Maritime Services, RMS Acting Chief Operating Officer Steven Head writes that the development in its current form is “prohibited” under the Sydney Regional Environmental Plan 33, and that RMS cannot consent to it proceeding.
Detailed responses from RMS and the Office of Environment and Heritage – which council is obliged to seek from government departments with a potential interest in a development - including scathing criticisms of environmental and traffic studies commissioned by Boyd Properties.
And further documents shed light on a close working relationship between the former Rockdale Council, John Boyd Properties, local politicians – and Westconnex.
Emails obtained under GIPA (freedom of information) by the Save Barton Park residents’ group, and provided to Central News, include minutes of a meeting in January, 2015, held at Kogarah Golf Club.
In the meeting, the General Manager of Rockdale Council, Meredith Wallace – now General Manager of Bayside Council – confirms Rockdale Council’s “complete support” for the Cooks Cove project.
The former State Member for Rockdale, John Flowers, describes the project as a “valuable community asset” and likened it to a “mini Darling Harbour”.
Four representatives of WestConnex were at the meeting – including its Chief Operating Officer Robert Rust.
WestConnex, too, was pressing for the project to go ahead. Mr Rust explained that it’s “time critical” to get tunnel boring machines to work drilling the new M5 tunnel. But once work started, WestConnex would have a nuisance on its hands: 800,000 cubic metres of spoil – the dirt dug out by the borers – which it will need to put somewhere.
It’s expensive and time-consuming to truck it out to landfill on the outskirts of Sydney – but John Boyd and Kogarah Golf Club have come up with a neat solution.
Why not use the spoil to “remediate” Barton and Riverine Parks, both part of the proposed new golf course site? In effect, this would mean dumping the 800,000 cubic metres of dirt on top of the parks to create a new surface for the greens.
Mr Rust expresses some reservations about the practical issues involved; but Mr Boyd says he believes a “whole-of-government response” can resolve any problems. The well-connected Mr Boyd had good reason to believe he could achieve such a response.
Six months earlier, the then Premier Mike Baird had written to 2GB host Alan Jones assuring him that he’d asked Urban Growth – the state-owned corporation responsible for major ‘urban transformation’ projects in NSW - to “work expeditiously” with Rockdale Council, Kogarah Golf Club and WestConnex to achieve “optimum future use” of the Cooks Cove site.
Baird was responding to an email from Jones expressing support for the project.
In February, 2015, Rockdale Council’s General Manager Meredith Wallace emailed the then Mayor, Bill Saravinovski, telling him council was pushing for “the title transfer of Barton Park…as the first step”. Ms Wallace also mentioned the forward planning for council elections due in 2016.
But events would overtake the “time-critical” pressure to get the Cooks Cove deal sealed. In September 2016 the State government announced Rockdale Council would be dissolved and amalgamated with Botany Bay to form the new Bayside Council.
In October, 2016, Cooks Cove Inlet Pty Ltd – a subsidiary of Boyd Properties – submitted a Development Application (DA) to the new council.
The DA attracted over 500 submissions from residents – some supporting the project, but many highly critical.
And one key sticking point remains the ownership of the land which Boyd and Kogarah Golf Club need for the project to proceed. The land – including Barton Park – is owned by Crown Land, Roads and Maritime Services, and the Department of Planning. In order for the project to go ahead, they must agree to transfer ownership to Bayside Council, which would then lease it back to Kogarah Golf Club on a long term lease.
So far, none of the landowners have consented. As our investigation reveals, Roads and Maritime Services has placed a major roadblock in the way of any progress.
In its response to Bayside Council, RMS says that “engagement and consultation has not been undertaken at a sufficient level for [our]consideration of [the] application.”
Ultimately, it will not be Bayside Council which will determine the outcome of the DA, but the Central Sydney Planning Panel. But even the Planning Panel will not be able to approve the Cooks Cove Project without consent from RMS. As RMS states in its response, “Roads and Maritime Services is not in a position to grant owner’s consent to the proposed development in its current form […] In the absence of land owner’s consent, the relevant consent authority would lack the legal power to determine the Development Application”.
With one key landholder unwilling even to consider John Boyd’s application, the future of his mini-Darling Harbour looks likely to face further delays – and as we reveal, a tiny frog and the Federal Department of Environment may have put a further roadblock in its path.
Read the next instalment in this investigative series here.
Reporting by Christopher Bohlsen, Catherine Bouris, Rune Woldsnes, Lewis Godwin, Lauren Mostyn, Katherine Bettes, Michael Forno, Jennifer McMillan, Sophie Peuzet Francois Martin, Mary Mrad, Jessica Voivenel, Iris Wang & Tom Morton.