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Mambo-Wanda Wetlands – a chequered past

Mambo-Wanda Wetlands – a chequered past

By Kathy Brown, Secretary Mambo-Wanda Wetlands Conservation Group.

It was Sunday 1st October 2017, and over 400 people attended a protest meeting on the corner of Foreshore and Port Stephens Drive, Mambo Corner, and I couldn’t have been more proud of our community.

When a small group, made up mostly of local Landcare and other environment groups, made last minute arrangements the night before, we worried that not enough people would turn up. We couldn’t believe it when we saw people walking down Port Stephens and Foreshore Drive with not a parking space in sight. The community had come together to say Mambo is Not for Sale, that no houses were to be built there and that our community appreciated the special place that was Mambo Wetlands.

Frank Future, Marine Parks Association, addresses the 400 strong crowd on Sunday 1st October 2017.

At the meeting newly-elected Mayor Ryan Palmer spoke, as did Councillors Nell, Arnott and Abbott. Traditional Elder of the Maiangal people, Carol Ridgeway-Bissett spoke as did many other community leaders. All said that Mambo should stay intact & that the land should not have been sold.

About nine months before, in June 2016, a 5.6ha area of Mambo Wetlands had been sold to a developer of retirement villages, Mr Paul Unicomb, for around $250 000 after a 4 week sales campaign. The community was in shock. Most people had believed that Mambo Wetlands was one entity owned by Port Stephens Council. Now we came to understand that the land had been granted to the NSW Education Department by Port Stephens Council as a potential high school site, 30 years previously. (Tomaree Education Centre had been built in the intervening years on a much more suitable site.)

In 2016 the NSW Government was looking around to sell off excess assets and the formerly designated ‘School Site’ within Mambo had been added to their list. Within two weeks of the For Sale sign appearing, a hastily organised rally was held on site, addressed by State MP, Kate Washington and Meryl Swanson, Federal MP. Added to this were the objections of many local community and environment groups as well as from Port Stephens Council. Despite all these objections and many personal pleas from residents, the sale went ahead on 9th June 2016.

The community was reassured because of the low sale price and the rumours that this would be used by the developer as an offset to his other developments. We assumed nothing would be done with the block. However, alarm bells went off when trees within the area were marked with coloured tabs in the first half of 2017 and then a Development Application (DA) was lodged soon after in October with Port Stephens Council. The DA was for a duplex to be built in the middle of the 5.6 ha block.

The meeting at Mambo Corner was called in order to organise community submission writing to protest the DA. Also as a result of this meeting a small community group was formed – The Mambo-Wanda Wetlands Conservation Group. The MWWCG led the community for over three years in its crusade to have Mambo Wetlands back in public ownership.

From 2017, two Development Applications were lodged for buildings on this block close to Port Stephens Drive. Port Stephens Council, as the consent authority for the proposed developments, received a record number of submissions against the buildings proposed for Mambo.

In addition, there were many GIPA Act applications (requests to access information) to Port Stephens Council and the state government to try to get to the truth surrounding the sale. The campaign also involved many letters to the paper and a petition that gathered over 13,000 signatures; a community generated campaign to bring Mambo Wetlands back into public ownership.

This campaign was ultimately successful but the long history of Mambo Wetlands shows that this wasn’t the first time the wetlands had been under threat:

  • During the First World War, Salamander Bay was earmarked by the Navy as a potential naval facility including a naval hospital. It had also been used as a submarine base during this conflict. The controlled land was eventually sold to Port Stephens Council in January 1955.
  • Port Stephens Council then tried to attract industry with offers of low-cost land and Government support for aluminium and other industries, to set up along the foreshore and attract users of the deep-water facilities for shipping within the port.
  • A housing sub division centred on Worimi Drive pushed into Mambo Wetlands from Sandy Point Road. Two other adjacent subdivisions were planned but were never commenced due to community protest.
  • Nearby Wanda Wetlands was also targeted as a housing development but after an effective community protest the DA was defeated in 1996. Many years later, in 2017 the planned estate was finally taken down from the Landcom website.

These proposals came to nothing due largely to the lack of transport infrastructure and probably due to the impending higher standards for environmental protection.

It is worth remembering this critical past as Mambo Wetlands lurched from one threat to another. It could have been a naval base or the site an aluminium smelter, a Gold Coast style canal development, a High School or a caravan park.

You may think these didn’t succeed because of lack of financial backing or political will, but I like to think that it’s the community that always appreciated the value of this wonderful wetlands right in our backyards and were willing to fight to protect it.

Photo: These signs installed in 6 locations highlight the value of the Wetlands in terms of its nursery for various marine life and of course a haven for the numerous wading birds that frequent the shores. This image shows a group enjoying tours of the Wetlands organised by Mambo-Wanda Wetlands Conservation Group.

Useful links:

Council to consider Ramsar listing for Mambo-Wanda Wetlands – EcoUpdate July 2023

Published: 1 Jul 2023