Kel Graham stands on his land that would be rezoned under the Lismore local environment plan.
Kel Graham stands on his land that would be rezoned under the Lismore local environment plan. Jerad Williams

Environment plan causing angst

IT’S not often Lismore City mayor Jenny Dowell has to quieten the council’s public gallery, but this was no ordinary council meeting.

To the jeers of an angry overflowingpublic gallery, the centre-left dominated council was once again dealing with one of the most far-reaching and controversialdecisions it will ever make.

It was a long way from a few months ago when the council’s strategic planning co-ordinator Paula Newman briefed councillors on the draft local environment plan which, in its final form, will determine how thelocal government area will deal with growth and development over the next 10 years.

Since then the rural-based Cooee Property Rights Group, which was inspired by activist Peter Spencer, and assisted by the Nationals Lismore MP Thomas George, have rallied many of the area’s farmers against the draft document, particularly over what they say are the implications for ownership rights.

“The draft is totally flawed and if it can’t be done properly it shouldn’t be done at all,” Cooee president Kel Graham said. “Not only will it restrict what farmers can do on their own land, but it will and already is, affecting land values.”

However, in an extensive two-hour interview with The Northern Star this week Ms Newman rejected suggestions the draft LEP was a ‘land grab’ or could force a change in existing practices.

Yet, with rural zoned land making up 85 per cent of the local government area, the LEP is a very contentious issue, gathering hundreds to numerous public meetings.

While Ms Newman said no individual farm would be significantly affected, rurally zoned land will shrink 3500ha under the draft offset by growth in urban, rural/residential and environment protection zones.

Such is the mounting anger and confusion that councillors voted to extend thepublic consultation period for a month, urging people to make submissions by sending a letter detailing how they will be affected.

Each objection will then be investigated by the council’s newly-appointed ecologist, Dr Damian Licari, Ms Newman assured.

The draft LEP, which took a staggering four years to write, is a State Government directive that must follow an inflexible template of land use zones and definitions.

Some categories, like E2 and E3 that deal with environmental conservation and management respectively, have led opponents to claim it is a disguised land grab or, as Cr Graham Meineke suggested, had a green-socialist bias.

The draft prohibits agriculture in both zones that comprise 2.3pc of the shire, or 2812ha, an increase from 623.8ha.

“The message we are getting from therural sector and some people in the environmental area is that’s a bit unnecessary,” Ms Newman conceded.

“We have heard what people are saying and reconsidered it internally, so we arealready looking at things like grazing being allowed in the environmental management zone.”

The reason it was initially disallowed was because under state law opening the area up to farmers meant mining also had to be permitted.

The fragmented 820ha of E2 zones are a different matter.

Encompassing areas of endangered ecological communities such as swampland, Ms Newman suggested it was unlikely the final LEP would open these areas to agriculture.

“We have only extended environment protection zones if there was a real basis. It’s not an exercise of going out and extending it over grazing land, it’s about areas of significance which we have applied very conservatively,” she said.

The other controversial issue are the new two rural zones replacing the previous one: Primary production, called RU1, and landscape, known as RU2.

Ms Newman said the council decided to have a proper look at the boundaries of the rural zone and not roll it all over into one because there was not a lot of rationale for some rural zoning remaining and there was new mapping done by the State Government.

“We wanted to work out what was the best quality agricultural land and that formed the basis of saying where the primary production zone would be and what was left was put into the rural landscape zone,

but that does not mean the RU2 is the rubbish.”

With the most productive land quarantined for agriculture, the distinction really becomes how the land can be used. In addition to farming, RU2 allows for small-scale tourist facilities and other non-agricultural uses.

While the new rural zones will include some current industrial users, ‘existing use rights’ means they can continue unaffected, even if the business is sold to a new owner.

The only exception is if the ‘use’ ceases for more than 12 months with no intent of resuming. This right applies across all LEP zones.

Ms Newman also rejected fears that under RU2 a person could stop the construction of a shed on a neighbouring property, simply based on the minimal interruption to the view from their house.

“It’s not about one neighbour not liking the look of it,” she said. “The LEP’s term ‘to maintain rural landscape character’ is about looking at the whole rural landscape, and farm sheds are apart of the rural landscape.”

Further complicating the LEP’s ‘sell’ are the numerous mapping mistakes, like the one that shows a house at Tucki Tucki which is 40 metres above sea level, located in a flood zone.

Ms Newman readily admits the blunder, but adds it will be corrected with a new map developed by the Richmond River County Council that wasn’t available until after the draft had been completed.

Other maps with the template-imposed scale of one-to-80,000, indiscernible colouring and no street names have made it near impossible for landowners to locate their properties.

Once again Ms Newman acknowledged the problem. She said easier-to-read maps were now available on the council’s website under yourmaps.

Mistakes with the LEP’s vegetation maps, based on satellite images which only had an expected 75 per cent accuracy, will be happily inspected and corrected, she said.

Submissions to the draft LEP closes on August 30. Staff will investigate each submission and write a final report to go to council for approval in December.

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