Mayor rams through land clearing code which could see up to 15,800 hectares of Hawkesbury bulldozed
Updated: Feb 3
It took Hawkesbury Council Mayor Patrick Conolly’s casting vote – that effectively gives him 2 votes – to push through an opt-in decision on the contentious Rural Boundary Clearing Code this week which could see as much as 15,800 hectares of the Hawkesbury bulldozed by land owners – that’s around 5.7% of our local government area’s landmass.
The Mayor said at this week's Council meeting, “to say 16,000 hectares could be cleared is silly”, but that seems to be his opinion – a report from Council staff says that is the land area which could potentially be cleared after opting into the RBCC.
Liberals on the council this week ultimately managed to override a decision made in the last council by a majority of councillors back in October to get more information on the ramifications of opting in to the RBCC, which allows some landowners to clear up to 25metres on their property boundaries as a fire break.
The new Code came into force in September and is administered by the RFS but Hawkesbury is one of several councils not automatically covered and would need to opt in to allow our landowners to clear up to 25metres of bush and other vegetation on the boundaries of their properties, which might be judged a fire hazard.
The new Code applies to land with rural zonings, so RU1 and RU2, for example, but not to E4 zoned land on which some of the Hawkesbury’s most fire-vulnerable properties sit.
At the moment, if you own land in the Hawkesbury and want to clear some of it to protect your property against fire hazard, you can already use the so-called 10-50 rule which means you can clear trees 10m from your home, and a further 50m of vegetation to protect your property from fire. You do not have to ask permission to carry out 10-50, though there are some areas of the Hawkesbury where 'endangered ecological communities' can mean this is not an option.
Hawkesbury was not one of the councils automatically opted in to the RBCC.
Council had decided by a clear majority in October to seek more information on the effects of opting in on the Hawkesbury, through public consultation and expert feedback from local RFS volunteers, for example, as well as requesting information on how to oversee any potential land clearing using geospatial mapping.
The public consultation was set to begin next month.
The Mayor said at this week’s meeting, “to say 16,000 hectares could be cleared is silly. It’s incredibly expensive to do this kind of work. Of course 16,000 hectares are not going to be cleared it would suggest everyone has the financial resources to go ahead and do this.”
A report to the Council by management staff said 15,800 hectares could potentially be cleared across the Hawkesbury, that’s almost 5.7% of the landmass in our local government area, if opting into the RBCC.
Council’s Director of City Planning, Linda Perrine, confirmed at this week’s meeting that the Council did not have the resources to oversee and police that level of land clearing.
But at this week’s full council meeting, the Liberals, led by Mayor Patrick Conolly, called for Council to immediately opt in to the RBCC by rescinding the previous motion that called for the public and expert feedback.
The Mayor said it was about “respecting the rights of rural land property owners to protect their property”.
Cllr Mary Lyons-Buckett, who was against adopting the RBCC until at least the views of experts had been heard, said the Councils that were included automatically in the Code were the ones the Code was designed for and Hawkesbury was not one of those councils.
“We would be blindly going into implementing a code without input from the experts. We don’t have that yet,” she said.
She added Council had been prepared to get the opinions of experts and that process was underway, and if the Code was opted into without that it would mean those councillors who wanted to opt-in immediately were not prepared to listen to information from experts.
“We should listen to those who go out and fight the fires, they have the experience. This [opting-in] would result in a poor environmental outcome,” she said.
“I’m really disappointed,” said Greens’ councillor Danielle Wheeler of the Liberals’ push to opt in.
“All of a sudden we are racing into this without any understanding if this works for us. We don’t even have the mapping to do it well. We have no expert input.
“I don’t think this is the way forward. I spent a lot of time talking to very senior members of the RFS and the resounding response was that this won’t work for us. It’s not designed for our topography. It’s designed for open grassy plains.”
She gave some examples of the comments RFS members had given against opting in.
“A rape and pillage approach, won’t have much impact on bushfire protection, I watched spot fires spot from ridge to ridge, they will destroy wildlife corridors.
This is a knee jerk reaction.”
“Those are just some of the comments, “ she said.
“The independent Bushfire Group have put out a statement about this and they make it very clear this was not recommended by the Bushfire Royal Commission,” said Cllr Wheeler, who added, “If your neighbour does it and you do it there’s 50m cleared.”
Labor were also against opting in without more information, with Cllr Amanda Kotlash saying, “I think this is a terrible code, a blunt instrument. If people did this on smaller properties we would just have a mosaic of weeds. We really just need more information. It doesn’t suit the Hawkesbury. It would be a disaster. “
Cllr Nathan Zamprogno, also against opting in without more information, pointed out that Council staff had also said public consultation should be carried out.
“My amendment laid out a clear path,” he said of the original agreed and voted-for route of asking for public consultation. He said so far the local RFS had not been asked for their opinions.
“They [RFS] told me there was nothing in the Code about the windrows [vegetation cut down and left on site], which could create an entirely new hazard. Those public consultations were ready to get underway in February.
“The Motion tasked council to find geospatial and mapping tools, tools readily available. We still don’t have those tools, but that is underway, why wouldn’t we wait?”
He pointed out this was a “substantial new landowning code with no resources available to control it”.
Cllr Wheeler asked Council’s Ms Perrine if they had the resources to oversee the potential land clearing, and she replied, “that’s a difficult question to answer. We would have to look at each site individually and I’m not sure how we would resource it.”
“Would we have resources to check, if for example koala habit was being cleared?”
“No we don’t,” Ms Perrine said.
Independent councillor Les Sheather who supported the Mayor’s motion said, “Council makes decisions like this often. Once council decides to do something then funds need to be made available”.
It’s not clear where those funds would come from.
Cllr Eddie Dogramaci, who voted with the Liberals and Cllr Sheather to rescind and opt into the RBCC, said if there were any koalas they would move if land was being cleared.
“The way I look at it, quite honestly 25m is not even enough. Maybe it should be 50m, maybe 100m.
“We are talking about koala habitat and fauna, or whatever it is, they are more intelligent than us and will move out very slowly.”
Interestingly, Liberal councillor Sarah Richards, one of those councillors fervent in their desire to opt in to the Code, voiced her support on Saturday for koalas, saying, “I want to ensure that local recovery projects get their fair share of funding so we can support the koala populations across the Greater Blue Mountains World Area”.
At this week’s Council meeting, she said it was “alarmist language” to talk about the 15,800 hectares that Council staff said could ultimately be cleared, and said, “it will be the majority of the room who agrees on this [opting into the Code]. I’m very supportive of property owner rights”.
But it wasn’t a “majority of the room,” who agreed – councillors were split 50-50, and it was only thanks to the Mayor’s 2 votes that Council agreed to rescind the original October motion.
That October motion asking for public consultation passed by 9 votes to 3 – a clear majority.
After the meeting, Cllr Zamprogno, who is still a Liberal Party member but was re-elected in December as an independent, said, “so that's it. No consultation. No resourcing for partnering with landowners. No resources for mapping, compliance or enforcement.
“Oh, and no takebacks. Once we're in, we're in for good.
“I think of this as a massive slap in the face for our local RFS, who are free to be for or against this, but who would have at least been accorded the courtesy of being *asked*. So much for the oft-claimed respect for our RFS.”
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