Council sets extremely high bar for DAs

New DA policy means less DAs will be considered at Council meetingsNew DA policy means less DAs will be considered at Council meetings

Fifty objections will be the new minimum requirement for a development application to be automatically referred to a meeting of the Central Coast Council for determination.

The new Council had attempted to set the bar at 100 submissions, but following public consultation, changed that requirement to 50 objections. The Council had further amended the new Public Submissions Policy to require two or more councillors to request DAs be considered at a public meeting instead of one councillor, as was the practice of the former Gosford Council. The word “submissions” was replaced with “objections” in the rewritten policy so that it will only be the number of submissions opposing a DA that will count towards the new minimum thresholds.

These two late changes have not been the subject of further public consultation although a precedent was set earlier this year for an amended draft policy to be given a second public consultation period. In July, the Central Coast Council placed an amended Draft Code of Meeting Practice on public exhibition for a further 42 days as a result of amendments made after the initial period of public consultation. The Draft Code of Meeting Practice had initially been put on public exhibition following the May 25 Council meeting. Coast Community News asked Central Coast Council why it did not follow its own precedent and give the community an opportunity to comment on the latest amendments to its new Public Submissions Policy.

A statement issued by Council on October 27, in response to the questions said: “Council considered a draft of the Public Submissions Policy at its meeting of July 27. “It was placed on public exhibition for a period of 28 days (but not advertised in this newspaper), and public submissions were received. “The policy adopted by Council on October 26 reduced the threshold for referral of DAs to Council to better align with the community submissions. “As a result of feedback [the number] was reduced from 100 to 50, so no need for further consultation.” It appears there is no minimum standard for Councils to follow when consulting the community about the setting of policies, so technically, Council does not have to do any consultation with the public on such matters.

M i n i m u m c o n s u l t a t i o n requirements are in place for matters such as Development Applications and Development Proposals. Four local residents spoke against the motion to adopt the new Public Submissions Policy at the October 26 ordinary Council meeting. “The Policy will put decision making regarding DAs behind closed doors with a lack of transparency and accountability to the community,” said Ms Jane Smith, manager of the Community Environment Network (CEN). “Even with an amendment to numbers of submissions, the draft policy is unreasonable,” Ms Smith said. “It is disappointing that, rather than proposing a higher standard of transparency and accountability, this Council wants to choose the lower standard of the former Wyong Council, rather than the higher standard of Gosford,” Ms Smith said. According to Ms Smith, the Policy also removed anti-corruption safeguards, noting the report from ICAC entitled ‘Anti-corruption Safeguards and the NSW Planning System’. Ms Smith said the report suggested six anticorruption safeguards, including ensuring transparency and meaningful community participation, and consultation. “All Councils suffer from community perceptions of dodgy deals, including the former Gosford and Wyong Councils,” Ms Smith said. “Many hoped that the new Central Coast Council would restore some confi dence in the planning process, however, the proposed policy reduces these safeguards against corruption. “We also note the previous Gosford Council also included the requirement that a DA come to Council for determination if it was in excess of $15 million. “It is unclear if this resolution of Council will continue. “The Report also seems to give some weight to the views of the Local Representative Committees (LRC). “To my knowledge, there is no mechanism for the LRC to engage with the community and their role as representatives is pretty much non-existent. “CEN requests that the Draft Policy be amended so that it is consistent with the former Gosford Council procedure,” Ms Smith said. Ms Smith also requested, but was not given: clarifi cation of the logic behind Council’s comments that this policy will not reduce transparency and accountability; and, clarifi cation as to whether developments in excess of $15 million would be required to come to Council, and if not, what the new threshold would be. Mr Gary Chestnut also addressed the Central Coast Council meeting on behalf of Friends of Gosford and the Mountain Districts Association. Mr Chestnut said the two community groups did not support the recommendation. “The information presented in the report is not a true refl ection of how the former Gosford Council policy on reporting DA’s to Council has operated in the past and the structure that was in place to assist Councillors,” he said.

He tabled an extract from the 2014 Gosford Council Annual Report that showed the median turnaround time for DAs from July to December 2013 was 35 business days, not the 52 days in the report. “Even when reports had to be prepared for the Joint Regional Planning Panel … from July to December 2013 … 98 per cent were assessed within 40 days, and in January to June 2014, 99 per cent were assessed within 40 days. “Consequently, the management structure that was in place in 2013-2014 had a direct relationship on the DA assessment determination times and not the number of DA’s referred to Council for determination,” he said. Mr Chestnut conducted a review of policies in local government areas surrounding the Central Coast which revealed that the new Central Coast Council Policy has higher requirements for a DA to be referred to Council than any of the new Local Government Area’s surrounding neighbours.

According to the survey of surrounding councils conducted by Friends of Gosford, in Newcastle City, DAs are referred to an ordinary council meeting when the value of a development exceeds $10 million, more than 25 unresolved public submissions are received, or there is a request from two Councillors. Lake Macquarie City Council has no adopted policy, as applications are referred to ordinary council meetings at the request of any Councillor, or at the discretion of management.

When clarification was sought on how management determined when to refer the matter to Council, the officer responded that since they had been working at Council, the officer had never known management to call up an application as they are always called up by the Councillors, even if there is just one person within the community that is concerned.

Hornsby Council has adopted a policy of referring DAs to meetings on the basis of 20 unresolved public submissions or a request by any Councillor. Cessnock Council has no adopted policy, but applications are referred to an ordinary council meeting at the request of any Councillor or at the discretion of the assessing officer. Anything between 10 to 20 unresolved public submissions can result in a DA being called before a council meeting. “Adjacent local government areas had either no policy on the number of unresolved public submissions or the adopted work practice referred DAs to Council for determination when the number of unresolved public submission was between 10 to 20, 20 or 25,” Mr Chestnut said. “The Mountain Districts Association does not believe the threshold numbers nominated reflect the true character of the population west of the M1 motorway,” he said.

“Within the Gosford City Community Profi le, it records that the population in the former Gosford Local Government Area in 2015 was 173,138, resulting in a population density of 1.84 persons per hectare. “In the same reference source, the population for Mountain North (which includes the areas of Mangrove Mountain, Peats Ridge and Somersby), the population in 2015 was 2,823, with a density of 0.07 persons per hectare. “For Mountain South (which includes the areas of Gunderman, Spencer and Calga), the population in 2015 was 1,584, with a density of 0.06 persons per hectare.

“Clearly there is a signifi cant difference in population number and density across the City. “The Mountain Districts Association believes that it is important to have the policy that is based on the local population character of an area, rather than an excessive large global number. “The Friends of Gosford believe the policy should be amended to require DAs to be determined by Council when either fi ve signifi cant submissions are received or 10 objections are received, and that when 20 objections are received, that the Administrator/Councillors receive a briefi ng memo. “The Mountain Districts Association asserts, in recognition of the smaller populations in the rural communities of the LGA, it would support the request of Friends of Gosford with one small change, that the policy should be amended to require DAs involving issues West of the M1 to be determined by Administrator/Council with a briefi ng memo provided, when either fi ve signifi cant submissions or 10 objections are received,” Mr Chestnut said.

Under the new Central Coast Council Public Submissions Policy, DAs with more than 50 submissions will be reported to a Council meeting for a decision, and DAs with less than 25 submissions will be determined by staff under delegated authority, Central Coast Council Administrator, Mr Ian Reynolds, said at the October 26 Council meeting. Applications with more than 25 submissions will automatically trigger a briefi ng note to be sent to the Administrator for consideration. The Administrator can also call up any DA for deliberation at a Council meeting. A report to the Administrator from Council’s Department of Environment and Planning said: “The policy will not restrict the ability of the Administrator or a Councillor to request that a development application be considered by the Council, irrespective of how many submissions are received”. However later, the report seeks to further clarify the ability of Councillors to call up DAs.

“It is proposed that this be further clarifi ed in the policy by indicating that a group of two or more Councillors can have any development application called to Council irrespective of the number of submissions received.” Mr Reynolds said Council now had one approach across the Coast making the process of determining DAs clearer for everyone. “This has always been about adopting one uniform approach so the community is clear about the process,” Mr Reynolds said. “Because the number of submissions required for an application to come to me for determination has been reduced from 100 to 50, development applications with a high level of public interest will automatically be determined by Council. “I do want to assure the community that all submissions are taken into account when considering any DA, no matter how many are received. “Staff must assess all DAs on their merit and under planning law and I have confi dence in staff to do their job effectively.”

The former Wyong Council had a threshold of 50 submissions to trigger a briefi ng memo to all Councillors and a threshold of 100 submissions to trigger referral to Council. For the 12 months prior to amalgamation, 66 DAs had been determined at Gosford Council meetings, whereas only six were determined at Wyong Council meetings for the same period. The report from Council’s Department of Environment and Planning to the Administrator, argued that a 50-submission threshold would improve effi ciency. “The preparation of a Council report to consider a development application has an impact on development application determination times,” the report said. “A total of 1,627 development applications were determined by the former Gosford Council for the 12 month period prior to amalgamation. “A total of 1,696 development applications were determined by the former Wyong Council for the 12 month period prior to amalgamation. “Using the 12 months preceding the Council amalgamation as a benchmark, the combined Councils determined a total of 3,323 applications. “A combined total of 406, or 12 per cent, of those determined applications received more than fi ve submissions.

“If the former Gosford Council delegation thresholds were applied, all 406 development applications would have had to have been automatically reported to a Council meeting. “Based on 10 meetings per year, this is equivalent of 40.6 reports per meeting. “This is in addition to any other development applications which may be called up by the Administrator or Councillors throughout the year. “It is noted that this will have a direct impact on development application determination timeframes and resourcing (especially now that council meetings have been reduced to 10 per year for the whole Central Coast). “The processing of development applications is acknowledged by the Department of Planning and Environment as a key indicator of Council performance. “It is noted that for the 12 month period prior to amalgamation …the median development application assessment time for the former Wyong Shire Council was 25 business days, and for the former Gosford City Council was 52 business days. “In the 12 month period prior to amalgamation … the former Gosford Council reported 60 more applications to Council than the former Wyong Council. “It is noted that the preparation of a Council report adds at least 21 to 26 days to the DA determination time of each development application considered by Council.

“It is considered important to balance the desire to have matters of high community interest determined by the Administrator/Council with the need to ensure that development applications are not unnecessarily delayed,” the report said. CEN’s Jane Smith noted the comparisons in the report between the former Gosford and Wyong Councils for the prior 12 month period. “The report seems to suggests that the former Wyong Council’s method of operation is in some way superior to that of Gosford,” Ms Smith said. “Considering that the current Central Coast Council is dominated by Wyong Council staff in senior positions, that perspective is not surprising, however, many in the community would disagree [with it],” she said. “The comparison of numbers of applications coming to council as a negative puts a heavy weighting on developer interests compared to the public interest. “The comment about the number of reports that would come to a council meeting is a factor of the reduction from four Council meetings per month (in April) to one Council meeting per month now.

“That is a circumstance largely of Council’s choosing,” Ms Smith said. Mr Gary Chestnut, representing the Friends of Gosford and the Mountain Districts Association said: “When comparing the former Gosford Council and the former Wyong Council policy on this matter, we believe a key component of the former Gosford Council policy has been overlooked. “In the former Gosford Council policy on referring DAs to Council, it was based upon fi ve or more signifi cant submissions. “That is, there was a requirement …to assess the content of each submission. “If the submission was trivial in nature, that is, the DA complied with all relevant planning standards and all Development Control Plan requirements, it may not be counted as a signifi cant submission. “Only DA’s that received fi ve or more signifi cant submissions were reported to Council. “Staff assessing submissions received guidance from the Principal Town Planner and Planning Advisors on whether or not a submission was signifi cant. “Friends of Gosford believe it is important to have the policy based on the contents of the submission rather than an arbitrary number to determine importance.

Media release, Oct 26, 2016 Ian Reynolds, Central Coast Council Agenda item 3.6, Oct 26, 2016 Central Coast Council ordinary meeting Media statement, Oct 27, 2016 Central Coast Council media unit Email, Oct 28, 2016 Gary Chestnut, Friends of Gosford and Mountain Districts Association Email, Oct 28, 2016 Jane Smith, Community Environment Network Reporter: Jackie Pearson