Kings Hill DA referred to NSW Environment, Energy and Science Group
Earlier this month, the Hunter and Central Coast Regional Planning Panel decided to refer the Kings Hill concept development application (DA) to the NSW Environment, Energy and Science Group (Department of Planning, Industry and Environment) for concurrence. The Panel deferred making a decision on the DA in January 2021 in order to gather more information. The comprehensive documentation, briefings, expert advice, peer reviews and detailed legal advice accrued since the deferral did not reduce the Panel’s concerns and the Panel agreed unanimously in November 2021 that the proposed development is ‘likely to significantly affect threatened species, populations, or ecological community or its habitat’ at Kings Hill.
Local groups like EcoNetwork Port Stephens have been keeping a watch on the Kings Hill development plans for a number of years. EcoNetwork was one of five local groups to speak of the importance of the Kings Hill koala population and of concerns over the potential loss of koala habitat if approved at the Panel meeting in December 2020.
At the recent Panel meeting in October 2021, Carmel Northwood, convenor of the Koala Koalition EcoNetwork Port Stephens, spoke alongside representatives from the Mambo-Wanda Wetlands Conservation Group and Port Stephens Greens. As the applicant and Port Stephens Council have remained of the opinion that the development is ‘not likely to significantly affect a threatened species, population, or ecological community or its habitat’, these local groups used the opportunity to raise additional concerns and to question some of the information being used to support the application. They also gave their support to a referral to NSW Environment, Energy and Science.
Although a number of surveys have been undertaken at Kings Hill, reports discussing the location and number of koalas have had very different conclusions. The Panel was asked to consider the need to use the precautionary principle as it is clear that koala numbers and movements cannot be adequately determined without further independent studies.
The importance of the Kings Hill koala population was reiterated with a warning that the use of speculative or experimental mitigation measures could have disastrous results for the survival of koalas at Kings Hill and elsewhere in Port Stephens. The plans to clear the development site in stages to encourage koalas to move to the enriched conservation areas, could result in chronic stress impacting their disease resistance, fertility and breeding success.
At present, the koala populations at Kings Hill are actively breeding and have genes that will help them adapt to change. This is very different to some others in Port Stephens. Recent unpublished surveys have shown that koalas on the peninsulas have been declining in numbers due to isolation, vehicle strike and disease while further inland, a similar situation is unfolding. With increased protection and connectivity, the Kings Hill koalas could essentially strengthen other populations in Port Stephens.
Mention was made of the pending decision by the Australian Government on whether to change the status of east coast koalas from Vulnerable to Endangered. If the uplist is approved, Kings Hill could potentially be identified as critical habitat for the survival of the koala population in Port Stephens.
A possible conflict of interest was also flagged at the meeting as the application states that Port Stephens Council will manage the enriched conservation areas at Kings Hill, yet Council has supported the DA and will benefit from future taxes on the new properties if the DA is approved. Mention was made of how Council has failed to meet its responsibilities to help maintain the Mambo Wetlands with regard to fire safety and control of feral pests and has cited financial difficulties, yet the DA has been developed with the agreement that Council will maintain the proposed enriched conservation areas in perpetuity.