The Future of Environmental Zones in the North Coast
By EDO NSW Outreach Solicitor Nina Lucas
4 August 2015
Environmental zones in north coast planning documents continue to be under the spotlight following the recent judgment in the North Lismore Plateau case and the ongoing Government review of environmental zones in the region.
In June, the Land and Environment Court confirmed that effective community consultation is fundamental to the process for making and amending local environmental plans (LEPs). EDO NSW acted for local Bundjalung Elder, Michael Ryan, in his successful challenge to changes to the Lismore LEP that sought to facilitate the development of the North Lismore Plateau.
The area is home to a number of culturally significant sites and contains areas of environmental value, including lowland rainforests, grassland communities, freshwater wetlands, and habitat for threatened species.
Land on the North Lismore Plateau was primarily zoned for rural use until property developers called for the rezoning to allow for the development of over 1,500 homes. This required amendments to the Lismore LEP to facilitate the development proposal. When the LEP amendments were put out for public comment, just under a third of the land was earmarked for environmental protection and restoration. This would play a vital role in mitigating the impacts of the development on the environment.
At around the same time, the Minister for Planning announced a review of the use of environmental zones in Far North Coast LEPs, saying that the Government would not endorse the use of environmental zones (E zones) on land that was currently zoned for rural use due to perceived conflicts between agricultural and environmental uses of land in the region.
When the amendments to the Lismore LEP were eventually finalised, no E zones were included at all and those areas were instead retained for rural use.
Mr Ryan commenced legal proceedings to challenge the validity of the amendments on the basis that the final LEP was fundamentally different to the proposed amendments that the community had been consulted on, and was therefore not a product of the process set out in the law. The Land and Environment Court agreed and the amendments to the LEP were held to be invalid.
However, Lismore City Council is having another go at rezoning the North Lismore Plateau for residential development and has recently lodged a new proposal with the Department of Planning and Environment.
Meanwhile, the NSW Department of Planning is still conducting its review of E zones in LEPs for the Ballina, Byron, Lismore, Tweed and Kyogle local government areas. The impetus for the review arose from apparent concerns that E zones are being introduced into new LEPs on the North Coast without evidence of the environmental significance of the land. The North Coast is one of the most biologically diverse regions in NSW and agriculture is a major part of the regional economy.
While the review is underway, the E zones in those 5 local government areas have been “deferred” and the current zoning of the land applies until the review is complete.
The Department intends to release final recommendations in the coming months. Once the criteria for environmental zones are finalised, it is likely that the Planning Minister will issue a direction to guide councils on the specific criteria to use when deciding to apply an E zone. Each council will then assess the land that was deferred, propose zones based on the final criteria and exhibit the proposed zonings for public comment.
Upon the release of the final recommendations, EDO NSW will be running workshops in the region about what they mean for the environment and the community.