ULLADULLA DREAMING: A brighter future in spite of the bureaucrats

THERE’S two ways you can read this story. One from the ‘glass half empty’ perspective. One from the ‘glass half full’ perspective. Shane Carriage, the CEO of the Ulladulla Local Aboriginal Land Council, is very much a glass half full kind of guy, although after battling 12 years to complete an ambitious land dealing that would provide jobs, an income and independence for his people, he’s keenly aware that what he almost ended up with was a glass neither half full nor empty, just broken. CHRIS GRAHAM reports.

THIS story begins almost two decades ago, when the NSW Aboriginal Land Council lodged a land claim over a 16-hectare area of bushland on the outskirts of Ulladulla, a small, picturesque town on the South Coast of NSW. The land claim was successful, and the lot – which borders national park, a residential development, and an old dairy – was transferred to Ulladulla Local Aboriginal Land Council (ULALC).

NSWALC secured the block in 1994. By the time the ULALC got it, it had been zoned residential for 25 years.

Says ULALC CEO Shane Carriage: “When we got it, we thought ‘You beauty’. We’re always looking for windows, because there’s a lot of doors, and they’re firmly locked.

“So we started investigating developing it 12 years ago.”

What tipped the LALC off to the potential value of the land was an approach from a developer – Eldersly Property – who had launched plans to develop an adjoining block, which had once served the region as a dairy.

But before that development could be completed, the company went under.

The adjoining land was bought by another company, from Queensland. At the same time, ULALC pushed ahead with its plans.

They put the development out to tender, and chose Malbec Properties, a Sydney-based developer with some serious runs on the board.

Malbec built ‘The Forum’ in northern Sydney, a $750 million mixed-use development created over the St Leonards railway station.

It was by no means a small job, and along with a very professional presentation to the ULALC members, helped forge the relationship between the two groups.

After several years of work, ULALC and Malbec finally won approval from the NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) in 2005 to proceed with the development, subject of course to local and state governments signing off.

For the uninitiated, LALCs wanting to develop their land can’t proceed unless they first have the land dealing signed off by NSWALC.

The process ensures that LALCs dot all their ‘I’s’ and cross their ‘T’s’ and protects members from predatory white developers seeking to rip off cash strapped land councils.

But having gained NSWALC approval, that’s where things ran off the rails.

Two government departments – the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and the ironically named Department of Planning – had an interest in the proposal. NPWS because the lot was bushland and adjoined National Parks land, and the Department of Planning because no developments happen in NSW without their approval.

ULALC were directed to complete standard studies of the area, to ensure the development wouldn’t harm the environment.

“As part of the process, we did a flora and fauna survey,” says Shane.

“We found some orchids.”

Meet the Leafless Tongue Orchid, a plant listed as vulnerable in NSW. It flowers for two weeks of the year (around Christmas time) and occurs widely on the east coast, from Orbost in East Gippsland, Victoria through coastal NSW and up in to the Tin Can Bay area of southern Queensland.

A total of 12 Leafless Tongue Orchids were found during the LALC survey.

National Parks expressed concern about the threat to the plant, but it was the discovery of a single White-Footed Dunnart – a small native marsupial – that really sent the proposal spinning.

The White-Footed Dunnart… a native Australian marsupial, listed as vulnerable in NSW.

The White-Footed Dunnart occurs throughout most of Tasmania, in a small patch in Far North Queensland, and along the southern coast of Victoria and the south-eastern coast of NSW.

It’s similar in size to a house mouse, and, like the orchid, is listed as a vulnerable species in NSW.

“NPWS didn’t even know it existed in the area,” says Shane, “so they decided that nothing should happen on the entire site.”

That meant 16 hectares of prime real estate adjoining an existing residential development – and butting onto National Park land – was to be locked up.

ULALC appealed on the grounds that the survey had discovered a single dunnart – not a colony of them – and argued for the chance to conduct a second survey.

It took 18 months for NPWS to agree.

“That (second) survey took 2,600 man hours, and it was about 10 times the size of the original survey.

“We found another 130 or 140 orchids on the National Park land, which meant they weren’t too concerned about the orchids on our land.”

As for the dunnart, surveyors used large PVC pipes distributed around the area with food in them. Rather than trap any dunnarts, the pipes are supposed to simply capture hair samples of animals that enter them. That hair is then sent off to a lab for analysis, to determine from which animal it came.

“After all the testing, we found nothing, not a thing. Not a skerrick.

“But the dunnart became the sticking point, even though the second survey found none.

“National Parks’ attitude was ‘They were there once’, so that was it.”

“I thought at the time, “We probably once used to eat this thing, now it’s costing us a feed.

“Talk about Karma.”

In a bid to unstall the project, Shane, along with representatives from Malbec, met with officials from National Parks and the Department of Planning.

“We were trying to nut out the problem with the dunnart, and how we can go about doing what we want to do, which was a substantial development.

“We spoke about how it would economically free up our community, how it would enable us to run programs to benefit our people, to create employment.

“The guy from National Parks words were, more or less, ‘I know our decision not to allow you to develop this land will create a socio-economic impact on your community, but that’s not my problem.

“So, basically, the dunnart is his problem, not Aboriginal people.”

It took another few years of battling the NSW Government for National Parks to finally concede, and for the Department of Planning to finally give approval.

But it came at a price.

THE ORIGINAL proposal to develop the 16 hectares had to be substantially reduced, with ULALC agreeing to give up 40 percent of the land, which would be locked up as a conservation zone. Which brings us back to the development of the adjoining dairy.

That project is well underway, and houses have already been constructed.

When the original developers started on the project, they were required to set aside the equivalent of about 10 percent of the site, not for environmental reasons, says Shane, but to acknowledge what was previously there.

But prior to construction, the site yielded a major archeological find. Thousands upon thousands of Aboriginal artefacts were found.

“We originally did about five months of work collecting artefacts from the site,” says Shane.

“We found stone tools, chips, flakes – we’ve got 7,000 of them here in the office, which we collected. And you can still find them today.”

But with the original developers going broke before the project was completed, and new developers buying the site, everything changed.

“Four or five years later, after the initial decision was made, the new developer applied to national parks to have (the 10 percent requirement) revoked. And they did. They got all those blocks back.

“They’re up for sale, and some of them have even been built on.

An aerial view of the ULALC development at Dolphin Point.

“It actually butts onto our land – we have a common boundary. So National Parks are agreeing there’s no cultural significance on their land, because National Parks gets to make the decision about what is culturally significant and what’s not.

“At the same time, one dunnart which cannot be found again, has cost us 40 percent of our land.

“As far as I’m concerned, there’s been little or no equity in the decision-making from National Parks.

“What they’re saying is our history is of way less value than a dunnart, which doesn’t even live on our land anymore.”
And remarkably, there’s a suggestion that the National Parks and Wildlife Service was originally offered the land awarded to ULALC, and didn’t want it because it was of little conservation value, and adjoined an already developed residential area.

You might think that having finally won over National Parks and the Department of Planning, ULALC’s and Malbec’s plans for a major residential development things might race ahead.
They didn’t.

By the time ULALC got the project through the state government, five years had expired since NSWALC had given approval to develop the land.

“The valuation was old and out of date,” says Shane. That original valuation had the land worth $9,990,000. But factor in a global financial crisis, a crash in land prices on the South Coast, and the loss of 40 percent of the land as a conservation zone, and ULALC was left with a valuation of just $3.1 million, less than one-third of the original price.

“We could only keep the original approval if the land valuation stayed the same, and obviously our joint venture partners weren’t going to pay $10 million for the land if it’s now only worth $3 million.

“So we had to redo all the NSWALC approvals.”

But that wasn’t the only problem.

Not only was the development now worth far less, but the ULALC’s Community Land and Business Plan (CLBP) – basically the core document of a LALC which governs its plans for the next four years – is also at its use-by-date.

“Our whole CLBP was written around us making the money from this development.

“The employment programs we wanted to run from it, the housing plans, the education trust, a new office for the LALC, a language program – we needed money from the development to do everything we wanted to do.

“In the end, the only thing we were able to do was a sporting and education trust, from the land sales from minor properties.

“The CLBP is now at the end of its life and we haven’t achieved five out of the nine goals, which were completely dependent on getting this land deal through.”

So in 2010, Shane and the Ulladulla LALC dusted themselves off, and started again.

“We went and got new valuations. We had to go through the whole rigmarole of having meetings, drawing up new contracts.

“It’s taken another couple of years with a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing on prices.”

And finally, in 2012 – 12 years after they first began – ULALC are finally on the verge of realising their dream.

“We’re now hoping to do some advertising for the sale of some of the blocks of land in September, just to let people know it exists and it’s finally going to happen.

“We’re not 100 percent sure when the first earth will get turned… some time in the new year, depending on certain thing happening.”

NSWALC has already approved ULALCs new plans, at a full council meeting earlier this year.

“We’ve still got to get approval from the Shoalhaven City Council, but that shouldn’t be anywhere near as hard, hopefully, as getting approval from the Department of Planning.”

On the upside, the development is now poised to begin. The revised project is a 104-lot development. Stage One will see the release of 14 blocks of land, with sizes ranging from 500sqm to 700sqm.

In later stages, lot sizes grow to an impressive 1,750sqm.

Stage One will see the 14 lots cleared, and is expected to take several months. It will include roads, kerb and guttering, street lights, water and sewerage.

It’s expected to generate local employment for Aboriginal workers, and ULALC is looking to add value to the deal by selling timber for firewood.

With things finally moving again, Shane is circumspect about the battles he had to endure for more than a decade to get a relatively simply land development through.

And he’s hoping some of the lessons are learnt.

“It has been a massive struggle. The Department of Planning just sat on their hands and didn’t seem to want to make any sort of decision. As much as we pushed them, and the developer pushed them as well, it made no difference.

“Would it have made a difference if they were dealing with Mirvac, Lend Lease or Macquarie Bank? I doubt they would have got held up like we did.”

Shane also hopes that the NSW land rights system takes note of what occurred.

“Initially, when we first started this project, NSWALC was a problem because it had nothing in place to deal with a development like this.

“We would ring up and they had no idea how to answer our questions. They didn’t have a commercial unit back then, they weren’t thinking about the big picture stuff.

“So we started doing stuff ourselves, then they started to put steps in place.

“I think some of the things we did forced NSWALC’s hand a bit.

“With the Commercial Unit (at NSWALC) now, they’re helpful, definitely.

“Sometimes I think they’re a bit pedantic, but maybe under the Act they’ve just got to be.”

Shane acknowledges that many of the land dealings which had progressed in the past had “been bad”. But he thinks reforms have gone too far.

“Before, you had no protections. Now I think it’s too much. It can be really restrictive, and it can take forever to do anything.

“I definitely understand how that came about – there was nothing in place before the rules changed, so it was just open slather.

“You read the horror stories about Koompahtoo and other land councils where it was just shocking, and you understand why it is the way it is today.

“But it’s too weighted now in the other direction. Somehow or another we have to straighten it out so it’s level, so there’s protections in place but so that it’s not impossible to get things done.”

Shane doesn’t know exactly how much the development will make for Ulladulla LALC – there’s a lot of variables, but the figure is in the millions.

And nor are they entirely sure what they’ll do with the profit. At least not yet.

“We have more plans in our Community Land and Business Plan which are about development,” he says.

“And we’ve got our own education trust. We want to put a bigger amount of money in it and maybe open the scope a little bit wider.

“We’ve bought other blocks of land, and we bought one with a house on it. The block of land itself is nearly 2000 sqm so we might look at putting units on it, maybe keep a couple for our elders.

“It depends on the market as to what we might do.

“We do need a more appropriate LALC office, a culture centre and museum.

“There’s plenty of stuff we want to do. Maybe buy some more houses for our members, look at smaller houses as well to house singles.

“We’ve got other land we’d like to look at developing as well, but maybe being able to do it ourselves the next time.”

In particular, ULALC is looking at other major developments with eight blocks of land in particular.

“Five of those are really close to town. They’re pretty well the last blocks of land in Ulladulla.

“We’re sitting on a major asset, and we have about another 100 undetermined land claims in the system.”

Which is a whole other story, because if you think National Parks and the Department of Planning can stall things, the undetermined blocks of land on ULALCs books are tied up in the NSW Department of Lands.

Many of them have been waiting on a government decision for more than a decade.

Still, Shane is confident the ULALC and its members has the mettle to get the jobs done.

“None of what has happened would have been possible without the assistance and encouragement of the Board and Members to keep going even when it all seemed impossible.”

So watch this space.

* Chris Graham is the managing editor of Tracker magazine and the founder and former editor of the National Indigenous Times. He is a Walkley Award and Human Rights award winning journalist. He lives in Glebe, Sydney.

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