Residents’ fears over precious forest

Jenny Barlass

In the latest twist to the long-running dispute over the former IBM site, 11 community groups representing thousands of angry residents have last week written to the Department of Planning demanding it reconsider Hills Shire Council’s recommendations for the site.

Included in the demands is that 11 hectares of forest under threat on the site be given the highest level of protection of E2 Conservation zoning.

Plans for the 26 hectare heavily forested site in question at 55 Coonara Avenue West Pennant Hills owned by property giant Mirvac, include rezoning it for medium and high density housing so 400 units and 200 townhouses can be built.

Currently the site has seven connected buildings leased for commercial use which Mirvac says are no longer fit for purpose.

Residents have taken issue with the application to Hills Council not least because they say the rezoning proposal includes 11 hectares of critically endangered Turpentine and Blue Gum High Forest on land adjoining the Cumberland State Forest. They want to see the bushland and the habitats of Powerful Owls resident there, protected.

In December the Council requested that the Department of Planning and Environment revise the Gateway Application to allow the site to be rezoned from B7 Business Park to R3 Medium Density and R4 High density residential. It also suggested to the Department that sections of the site containing the critically endangered forest be subdivided into an exclusive residential enclave of five acre lots. It is not clear how much of the site will be zoned for acreage subdivision at this stage.

“This is a move that has confused and outraged the community,”  said Justine Smillie, spokesperson for RIPA (Residents Infrastructure and Planning Alliance). In their open letter to the Premier, Greater Sydney Commission Chair Lucy Turnbull, Department of Planning, local MPs and Environment Ministers, residents groups are demanding the Department zone all remnant forest E2 Environmental Conservation, which means it cannot ever be built upon and the public has the right to its access.

Critics say the development, first proposed as over 1200 residences two years ago by Mirvac, is not only environmentally destructive, it also places further strain on already overloaded infrastructure and amenities for the number of planned dwellings.

“This is entirely inconsistent with the Department of Planning’s initial position which was that the high value, pristine forest should be protected,” said Justine Smillie.

She added that thousands of submissions objecting to the rezoning proposal have been sent to Council and the Planning Department.

“It beggars belief that Council does not recognise the significance of this unique site and continues to ignore the community’s demand that the forest be protected and preserved. Whose interests are the Council representing?”

The DA is currently under consideration by the Department of Planning’s Gateway assessment.

In a statement, Toby Long, Mirvac’s General Manager for Residential Development NSW said that “protecting the forest is a top priority for Mirvac – there has never been a proposal that affects the remnant bushland and we can categorically rule out sub-dividing the forest areas. In fact we are seeking the highest form of zoning – E2 for forest areas.”

On the potential use of existing buildings for educational purposes, he said that Mirvac’s research showed education facilities were not a suitable use of the buildings.

He added that Council “has now twice endorsed the proposal for residential use and the Department of Planning and Environment has established strategic merit of the project through their ‘Gateway Determination’ process.

“Mirvac will continue to work closely with the local community, the Government and the Council and we are hopeful the Planning Proposal process will clarify the facts of our proposal.”

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