The National Trust has serious concerns that the successful EOI for the redevelopment of the Quarantine Station at Point Nepean has the potential to turn into a white elephant.
The Point Nepean Quarantine Station has proven to be a heritage ‘hot potato’ for more than 15 years, being passed around by successive state and Federal governments, all equally reluctant to take responsibility for activating this highly significant public asset.
In 2002, the Federal Government planned to sell-off 311 ha of Point Nepean, including the Quarantine Station. That was abandoned following community protest. The campaign for the Point Nepean National Park gathered strength, whilst the Federal Government called for tenders for private lease of the Quarantine Station.
The National Trust and Victorian National Parks Association submitted an expression of interest, but by October 2003, a private Queensland-based developer won the tender for an 80 year lease to create a 250-bed resort with 11 new buildings. This proposal fell over within two months, and the Point Nepean Community Trust was appointed to manage the Quarantine Station, until the 90 ha Quarantine Station and 205 ha of bushland were added to the Point Nepean National Park in December 2009. Now, less than five years later, the State Government is again attempting something that was so strongly opposed by the public in 2003.
The main reason for the National Trust’s concerns, are that the proponent has made it clear that geo-thermal access is the unique selling point and commercial driver for the proposal. Whilst the proponent is confident, there does not appear a fall-back position to guarantee financial viability in the event that a geo-thermal resource is not economically sustainable.
The granting of a 99 year lease to a business proposition that, were it to fail quite early, presents an enormous risk to Victorians. The risk is that the site will consequently be locked-up in complex leasing, sub-leasing or on-selling of the lease and simultaneous dispute resolutions with no ongoing net benefit or certainty for a large and highly significant part of the Point Nepean National Park. Given the failure of private development at Seal Rocks and subsequent compensation costs incurred by the State, the National Trust would like to know how DEPI and the government will protect Victorian taxpayers from significant compensation costs for any failed private venture at the Quarantine Station.
Certainly, some elements of Point Leisure Group’s proposal are welcome:
- adaptive reuse of existing heritage buildings (with no new structures to exceed existing building heights);
- strong contemporary design proposed to add a new layer of fabric to the site; and,
- inclusion of education and community facilities in the proposal.
However, the National Trust still has concerns and questions regarding:
- the extent of the proposed lease are, which remains open to negotiation;
- the uncertainty underpinning the current business plan, which relies on successful access to unproven geothermal resources;
- a 99 year lease period, which will effectively tie up this area of National Park under private ownership, with no guarantees for the ongoing maintenance of the heritage fabric and values;
- changes to heritage places, relying on a master plan which in turn relies on the economic impact ‘get out of jail free’ clause of the Heritage Act;
- the risk of creating severe discord between the state-managed Park and the privately-leased area;
- the impact of the proposed thermal pools on a stand of Coastal Moonah Woodland, a listed community under Victoria’s Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1998, which contravenes DEPI’s Action Statement for conserving this vegetation type;
- the realisation of a de-funded Coast and Climate Centre, especially given an analogous facility is already established and located less than seven kilometres away, and the absence of a back-up plan for natural and cultural heritage education, should the sub-lease agreement between the Point Leisure Group and the University of Melbourne never come to fruition;
- funding for curatorship of the proposed museum;
- the viability of the proposed jetty on such an exposed and significant section of coast, within the Ticonderoga Bay Sanctuary Zone;
- limiting public access, by requiring visitors to pay for almost experiences within the Quarantine Station area, including the Coastal Discovery Centre;
- a lack of transparency about how the proposal will meet the objectives of the Point Nepean Master Plan 2013;
There is currently a Planning Scheme Amendment mooted to remove some of the overlay controls that require thorough site analysis prior to any works, and establish a Special Use Zone (SUZ5) to clear the way for their operations, but it is not clear when (or indeed, if) opportunity for further comment on the Amendment will proceed. The National Trust’s concerns with respect to the Amendment are that:
- Use and development in accordance with an approved Development Plan under SUZ5 will not require further planning permits;
- Development in accordance with the approved Development Plan will be exempt from 3rd party rights of appeal;
- The SUZ5 in its exhibited form does not preclude subdivision provisions, which would be exempt from public notice and appeal;
- The process for acceptance of Development Plan requires a greater level of public scrutiny than proposed; and,
- No clarity about how the proposed SUZ5 will interact with other Permits required under the Heritage Act, Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, Aboriginal Heritage Act, and Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act?
Some suggestions to mitigate against failure of the leasing proposition are:
- A bond amount to ensure works can be completed, and conditions to protect against seizure of the site in the event of financial default;
- Conditions restricting the on-selling of the lease;
- Conditions regarding assets reverting to public ownership at the end of the lease; and,
- Conditions to regulate and enforce public access to the site.
The scope of the Development Plan, if it includes all the proposed elements advertised by the Point Leisure Group, will take several years to complete given the substantial investment required. We understand that certainty is required for a developer to secure their investment in the site. However, the National Trust submits that the arrangement must similarly protect Victorians and their public asset.
The National Trust has made a submission to the Department of Environment and Primary Industries, with more detail regarding the concerns expressed above. Click here to download the National Trust submission in full.
The Victorian National Parks Association has also published two articles this week, in collaboration with the Nepean Conservation Group and the Nepean Historical Society:
- ‘Point Nepean at a crossroads’
- ‘Locals locked out of Point Nepean development plans’ – 26 September 2014
- ‘Point Nepean luxury hotel development must be suspended’, including the link to an independent impact report produced for the VNPA by environmental consultants Practical Ecology – 29 September 2014