Questions raised about Illawarra escarpment development

Wollongong residents are campaigning to defend their community and environment from profit-driven developers and bureaucratic cover-ups.

Dr Clare Leabeater, a Wollongong resident and anti-corruption researcher, has uncovered some disturbing facts related to property developments by the Vellar family, of which Frank Vellar is a member. Vellar and former council planner Beth Morgan were recently found by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) to have engaged in "serious corrupt conduct".

Leabeater has compiled a report, The Vellar Family Mansions, which exposes attempts by Wollongong City Council (WCC) to retrospectively approve illegal developments by the Vellar family on the Illawarra escarpment 14 years after construction began.

According to the July 24 Illawarra Mercury, "A company connected with controversial developer Frank Vellar may have to demolish two million-dollar mansions built on the Illawarra escarpment after an admission from Wollongong City Council administrators last night that the homes had been built in protected bushland where residential development is banned".

The article later confirms that "the mansions still have no legal status". The Mercury also reported, "Complicating matters is the revelation that the council file for the DA [development application] to build at least one of the houses has been defaced and documents are missing".

According to the July 24 Sydney Morning Herald, "After the council was sacked, state appointed administrators Gabrielle Kibble, Col Gellatley and Robert McGregor, planned to give the Vellars' land an E3 zoning — making the buildings legal — but changed their minds after a community outcry".

Despite ICAC's investigation of Vellar, the illegal mansions do not appear in the ICAC transcripts. Leabeater is asking why the public was not informed of the developments given their unquestionable illegality.

NSW Greens MLC Lee Rhiannon told the July 24 SMH: "The big remaining question is why this didn't come up in the ICAC inquiry, and you are left wondering what other illegal matters may not have been dealt with. That's why we need a real investigation. There is so much unfinished business."

In her report, Leabeater notes that after three development applications were refused the Vellars reached an agreement in 1992 with WCC that allowed them to build two houses on environmentally-protected escarpment land. In exchange, the Vellars handed over a large portion of their land to the public. WCC — under then Lord Mayor David Campbell (now NSW police minster) — prepared an amendment to the Local Environment Plan (LEP) to formalise the new land division (amendment 53), which was voted on by NSW Parliament on October 29, 1993.

The amended LEP specified that the houses were to be built on two parcels of land, zoned "7b Environmental Protection", a zoning that allows conditional development, located on the eastern boundary of their retained allotment. The parcels of land had been determined to be stable. But the Vellars built the two houses to the west of these designated areas on land zoned "7a Special Environmental Protection" — a zoning that prohibits such development.

"This deviation to the west of the approved sites by some 80 metres provided the Vellars with a significantly higher elevation and breathtaking views. But it has damaged the foothills of the escarpment over a wide area below", Leabeater told Green Left Weekly.

"Illegal development on the Illawarra escarpment carries significant risk to the public. The steep grade and unstable clay soils predict engineering and drainage problems exponentially greater than might be experienced on the plain", she continued.

"Approximately $140,000 of public funding has already been spent on the Vellar property, to remedy the damage caused by the illegal building work. Council is aware of the instability of this land that is considered a significant land slip risk. Why should the public continue to bear the costs incurred by this illegal development that risks both personal and structural safety?", she asked.

[Chris Williams is a member of Socialist Alliance in Wollongong.]

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