Melaleuca Media
Battle for green divides the Sunshine Coast

Controlling growth, the key issue in keeping Queensland desirable, took a long time to be established as a media issue. Phil Dickie and Susan Brown were miles ahead of the pack detailing growth issues, as this article shows. It was published, in dramatically shortened form, in The Courier-Mail.

Looking south from Brisbane, the suburbs and subdivisions are marching down past Beenleigh to meet the suburbs and subdivisions charging north from the Gold Coast, while developers race each other to see who can fill in the gaps first.

If there is a guiding hand from government or local government, it isn't immediately apparent to anyone driving north or south on a superhighway seemingly becoming more congested month by month.

The immense looming sprawl to the south is putting the focus on the north, where the Sunshine Coast has long entertained energetic debate between those who wanted it to be just like the Gold Coast and those who wanted it to be anything but.

In decades past, that debate on development was mainly about the desirability of highrise over the road from the beach. The disjointed skyline from Mooloolaba to Maroochydore reflects the alternating political balance between councils encouraging developers to shoot for the skies and councils determined to chop them off at the knees.

Now the debate is more about keeping some of the landscape between Brisbane and Noosa sustainably green or at least relatively free of concrete house slabs, golf courses and retirement villages or the road alignments, dams and pipelines they require. It is a debate where some of the most heat is being generated immediately to the west of the Sunshine Coast's more pristine and least developed beaches.

Under threat now are remnants of the Wallum corridor, large areas of which were area once protected by swampy land, Forestry reserves, unexploded World War two practice ammunition and few roads.

Now the sounds of hammers and jackhammers are ringing through the banksias and wildflowers of the swampy heaths and the tall eucalypts of the timbered ridges.

Big developers have pounced on old approvals and smaller developers alike and Coolum Ridges will one day run into Peregian Springs. Rod Forrester, founder of development giant Forrester Kurts Properties (FKP) has a vision of the next wave of estates marching on across the canelands stretching towards Eumundi and the Bruce Highway.

Forrester's visions are crowding up against the boundaries of Noosa, which has long been prone to occasional experiments with a philosophy that less can be more as far as growth and development are concerned. A concept of “Greater Noosa” arranged along the former Wallum corridor isn't playing at all well in the corridors of the Noosa Shire Council.

Indeed Noosa Mayor Bob Abbott has emerged as one of the strongest critics of the inability of a succession of State governments to find workable mechanisms to prevent what he is calling “the Los Angelisation of SE Queensland”.

“It is very important to protect those areas that divide our urban areas distinctly,” he said. “It ensures our towns can maintain their own identities and have their own futures.”

Queensland has long had a State Planning Policy intended to protect valuable rural land from the urbanising imperative. In close to a decade however, the State machinery had yet to show it was much capable of protecting a single avocado tree on Tamborine Mountain or a single strawberry field in the Redlands.

Abbott said Noosa had successfully gone its own way to ban subdivision from some rural land and ban close subdivision or urban encroachment from other land. And values in rural conservation areas were booming as a result.

Another part of the Noosa plan to choose a future rather than have one thrust upon it is a plan to “cap” on population. “It is not helpful that we are becoming surrounded by developments setting up with half our population again,” said Abbott.

FKP is hoping to generate a lot of shareholder value from Peregian Springs and recent acquisition Coolum Ridges, even more so after getting rid of lots of under-performing land assets elsewhere. The company bills it as a “$250 million premier master planned community” which has been taking shape – and being opposed – in stages ever since the 1980s.

When asked how many people might end up in the West Peregian area, Rod Forrester thought it might be about 9000, although conservationists were prone to “emotional” exaggerations, he said.

When told an FKP media release was touting a population of 10,000 and apparently for Peregian Springs alone, Forrester said Maroochy council was pushing for higher densities and more open space.

According to Forrester, “the whole area was zoned future urban” but the company “has given 25 per cent of our whole site to environmental reserve”. That has earned them precious few accolades from conservationists; when Peregian Springs was recently “highly commended” for its sustainability in awards sponsored partly by Queensland's Environmental Protection Authority, local green groups were outraged.

The wildlife corridor is listed in the National Estate and is said to host more endangered species than some nearby National Parks. In an interesting double act, the Department of Natural Resources and Mines has just remapped some of the ridge forests as endangered . . . and decided that they can't be protected.

The problem with West Peregian is not that it is not green enough, it is that it is there at all. In part, the battle for open space in south east Queensland generally is a battle against the legacy of the corrupt National Party governments of the pre-Fitzgerald era and their insistence that local governments recklessly rezone large tracts as “Future Urban”.

Don Culley, Maroochy Shire chairman from 1982-85, said his council had prepared a town plan “to establish constant green corridors between Caloundra, Maroochy and Noosa”. “We wanted to keep the Sunshine Coast as a unique place – rather than as an urban extension of Brisbane,” he said.

But then local government minister Russ Hinze had been successfully lobbied – there is no detail as to exactly how - to sit on this plan. A subsequent council turned green corridor into Future Urban and the applications to rezone too much of the then middle of nowhere to Residential A started to flow in almost immediately.

FKP proposed the usual contribution to open space by way of a golf course, and mainly gave up on plans to turn swampy heath into lakeside living. But turning some other elements back from zone red to zone green has been a painful process for all concerned.

Forrester said the Council's “behaviour was terrible” as it sought to impose an overall area plan on existing approvals and otherwise kept changing requirements. Council insiders and consultants said the company deluged council with contradictory demands and requests, wouldn't provide information, wasn't honest about its intentions, wouldn't do studies or do them properly and generally “played hardball all the way”.

It all ended up in court, and FKP walked out the winners. Sort of. The Federal government has since taken away a few more hectares after finding company plans to protect an endangered frog and endangered trees were inadequate.

Forrester said he was looking forward to the canelands, where the frogs were presumably long gone. “I'm all for open space,” he said. “We wish we could have more of it.” But land “gobbled up for environmental reasons” out of land already approved for development was a real issue for developers, he said.

Karen Robinson, incoming co-ordinator of the Sunshine Coast Environment Council said developers wanted to bind councils and communities to preliminary approvals handed out well before land was routinely surveyed for conservation values or environmental hazards – but they also wanted to submit their development applications little bit by little bit so there was never any opportunities for overall assessment of impacts.

The pressures on open space were a compounding problem. “When all these new areas need roads and power lines and pipelines, where do they want to put all this infrastructure? Into the green areas, that's where.”

Griffith University planning lecturer Darryl Low Choy has for some years had the thankless job of implementing the State government's minimal and ineffectual commitment to preserving open space. He believes that communities seize on the “rare frog approach” as a tactic of desperation – and said that to preserve the scenery of the south east, and to preserve the “opportunities for outdoor recreation” we need to look outside the National Park estate.

Issues of economics also intrude, however. A substantial part of the Sunshine Coast economy is in the building of new houses and new shopping centres for new Sunshine Coasters. Bob Abbott for one thinks this is not sustainable and the Sunshine Coast should look at “a more mature economy” that is not destroying the values that attract the people in the first place.

Down at Peregian Springs, Rod Forrester reports that Stage Six is selling very, very well. But the Abbott argument that green sells and surburbia might one day repel draws some comfort from Peregian Springs publicity material extolling the way “natural bushland surrounds create a peaceful native backdrop”.

Development is almost certainly nudging up against other limitations, which will in time lead to a whole new set of conflicts. Noosa has had water restrictions in place for some time and Maroochy and Caloundra are on the point of introducing them.

Here again, you are never far from a comparison with that other place. “When did the Gold Coast go on water restrictions?” asked Bob Abbott. “Was it a year ago? I hear you can just about jump over the Hinze Dam now.”