Campaigning is in its final days in elections for the new Bayside Council and a proposed $100m residential development at Cooks Cove is on everyone's lips.
The proposed Cooks Cove development – a controversial $100 million plan to relocate Kogarah Golf Course to 52 hectares of public land centred around Barton Park - is one of the hot topics for voters, attracting the largest number of questions from residents across all five wards at a Bayside Council Community Forum in May.
The new Sydney council was formed when Rockdale and Botany Bay councils were amalgamated in September 2016 and residents will go to the polls on Saturday, September 9.
The Bayside Council area, with 100,000 registered voters, stretches from Eastgardens Shopping Centre around through Port Botany, Mascot, and Rockdale all the way west to Bexley and south along Botany Bay to Sans Souci.
Central News spoke to a number of candidates to seek their views on the Cooks Cobe proposal. But in a bizarre twist, council officials said the development application will be “allocated to an external assessor” – and the newly-elected council may not get a chance to discuss or vote on it.
“This proposal will take away a huge chunk of public land and hand it over to a private golf course which will be inaccessible to the public” according to Greens candidate Greta Werner, campaigning in Mascot ward.
Ms Werner is also spokeswoman for the Save Barton Park committee.
At present, Barton Park is a large area of open green space including playgrounds and sports fields. But Barton Park could end up under 800,000 cubic metres of spoil from the new WestConnex M5 tunnel, as part of the “remediation” process to create the new Kogarah Golf Club site.
There’s never been a community proposal before, whoever is elected to the new council should have a chance to discuss it and vote on it
Roads and Maritime Services appears to share Ms Werner’s view. In a written response to a referral from Bayside Council, obtained by Central News, RMS “submits that the proposed golf course use does not constitute ‘public recreation’ … as entry to the course will be upon payment of a fee by interested persons".
“Parents won’t be able to kick around a ball with their kids there” adds Ms Werner,“and birdwatchers won’t be able to access the wetlands.”
Adjoining Barton Park is Landing Lights wetland, a protected wetland home to the endangered green and gold bellfrog, and 120 bird species, including migratory birds from as far away as Siberia, which visit Landing Lights during the warmer months to feed and fatten up before returning to the northern hemisphere to breed.
According to the Cooks Cove Indicative Development Proposal, a part of the Landing Lights Wetlands will be preserved within the new Kogarah Golf Club site, and the public will be able to access the wetlands through the clubhouse.
But Ms Werner said that was of little use to birdwatchers. “The peak times for birdwatching are at dawn and dusk,” she said, “and at those times the clubhouse will be closed”.
Save Barton Park has put forward a community proposal for the park, wetlands, and adjoining public lands, as an alternative to the Cooks Cove development.
“We’ve workshopped this extensively with local residents and we’ve come up with a comprehensive proposal which includes remediation of the wetlands, maintaining and upgrading the soccer fields, and putting in new toilet blocks so that schools can resume using the parks,” Ms Werner said.
She said funding could be through community grants and partnerships with groups like Conservation Volunteers Australia.
“There’s never been a community proposal before, whoever is elected to the new council should have a chance to discuss it and vote on it.”
Bardwell Valley resident Michael Nagi, who is campaigning as a Liberal candidate in Mascot ward, told Central News that “at this stage I'm anti-too-much-development. What concerns me is that I haven’t seen anything solid”. He said he would only support the proposal “if they [the developers] come back with no impact on green space and better infrastructure”.
Voters could be forgiven for wondering why their aspiring local representatives, such as Mr Nagi, a former Deputy Mayor of Rockdale, say they have not seen the Cooks Cove DA. It was submitted in November 2016, and council received more than 500 submissions, all of which are displayed on the council website.
Labor Candidate Bill Saravinovski also told Central News he “had not seen the current proposal”. Mr Saravinovski, seven times Mayor of Rockdale, has previously been an enthusiastic supporter of the project, telling a Rockdale Council meeting in which he was re-elected Mayor in 2015 that he would “focus on the Cooks Cove development”.
“I don’t know what negotiations have been going on between the developer and council officials,” Mr Saravinovski said. He lives in Banksia and used to play in Barton Park as a child.
Asked if he believed the newly-elected council should look at an alternative proposal for Barton Park and the remediation of the Spring Street and Landing Lights wetlands, Mr Saravinovski said he could not comment, but questioned where the funding would come from for remediation of contaminated lands, which he believed would be in the order of $30 - $40 million.
Mr Saravinovski would not be drawn on whether he would stand for Mayor if re-elected. “I’ll be grateful to be re-elected as a councillor,” he said.
The current DA for the golf course exceeds the financial value of applications that are considered and determined by council
Barbara Martin, an Independent candidate in Botany Bay Ward, who lives in Brighton-le-Sands, told Central News she was “not sure yet” how she felt about the Cooks Cove project, but was not totally against it. She said a lot of people use Barton Park and existing public facilities, and believes that “most people aren’t for it [the Cooks Cove development]”. Despite this, Ms Martin said she “feels like it will end up happening.”
“If it’s done nicely it could be very good,” she said. “Access for cars is important.”
The Cooks Cove proposal has had a long and chequered history, stretching back more than a decade. An earlier version of the proposal submitted to Rockdale Council was abandoned by Boyd Properties after the 2009 financial crisis.
Rockdale council has historically championed very ambitious development proposals. For years, they campaigned to build a 7-storey glass tower called The Crystal in Botany Bay, in an attempt to transform the area into a commercial hub.
The Crystal never went ahead – but according to former Greens Councillor Lesa de Leau, Rockdale Council has a record of avoiding public scrutiny of development applications.
On December 6, 2006, Ms de Leau and another former councillor, Liz Barlow, put forward a motion to amend an approval for a major development proposal.
The amendment stated that the decision be delayed for one month, until the first council meeting of 2007, and that the wider community, instead of just the specific objectors be notified of the decision. This amendment was voted down 12 to 2.
Ms de Leau said independent councillors attempted on many occasions to delay or amend development approvals in order to lessen environmental or community impacts, only to be voted down by a block of combined Liberal and Labor councillors.
Ms de Leau claims the public voting record of councillors during the period between 2004 and 2008 shows Labor councillors “voted almost exclusively with Liberal”.
A number of those former Labor and Liberal councillors are standing again in these elections. But in a bizarre new twist, the newly-elected Bayside Council may not even get to vote on the Cooks Cove Development Application.
In an email response to questions from Central News, Liz Rog, the Manager of Executive Services at Bayside Council, stated that “the current DA for the golf course exceeds the financial value of applications that are considered and determined by council, therefore the Central Sydney Planning Panel will be the determination authority.”
This in itself is not news: it has been clear for a number of months that the CSPP would make the final decision, although it cannot do so until all the relevant landholders give their consent, something which is unlikely to happen anytime soon, as Roads and Maritime Services have stated that it “is not in a position to grant owner’s consent to the proposed development in its current form”.
The NSW Government Planning Panels website states that ““it is the responsibility of the relevant local Council to carry out a proper and professional assessment of a proposal for the panel’s determination of the DA. Dependent on Council policy, this will include the public exhibition of the application and assessment of submissions received”.
However, it appears that “assessment of all submissions received” will not include debate or discussion by the newly-elected Bayside councillors. Ms Rog stated that “council officers do have a responsibility to carry out a proper and professional assessment of a Development Application prior to it being considered by the Sydney Central Planning Panel.” However, “in this instance, because Council is one of the landowners of the subject site and to avoid any perception of conflicting interests, the DA has been allocated to an external assessor.”
Ms Rog did not comment on whether the new council would be able to debate the DA, or a separate Planning Proposal for rezoning, which was submitted to Council by the developer in May 2017, but has not been made public.
Reporting by Samantha Jonscher, Christopher Bohlsen, Rune Woldsnes and Tom Morton