Have your say on LEP

If you are interested in the future of Lismore City —the whole Council area, not just the town — you might want to have a look at the Draft Lismore Local Environmental Plan.

It will replace the current LEP, made in 2000, and will become the legal instrument for planning the area’s future. LEPs zone land for different uses; specify controls such as minimum subdivision sizes, development on flood liable land and building heights; identify areas for urban land release; and include provisions to protect the natural environment.

The primary interest of the Environmental Defender’s Office is how well new LEPs protect the environment. The most important elements are, firstly, to ensure that land with high conservation value is zoned for environmental protection in E zones; then to construct the land use tables so that development that would jeopardise environmental values is either prohibited or only allowed with Council consent; and finally, to include provisions that help to protect lands not covered by the E zones.

When the EDO looked at an early draft of the new LEP last year, we were concerned that it appeared to be a backward step for environmental protection. The draft that is now on public exhibition is a significant improvement.

Compared with the existing LEP, more land is now protected in E (environment) zones. The land use tables for the E zones are designed to prohibit inappropriate developments such as forestry and quarries. There are also provisions requiring Council to consider impacts on riparian areas (the banks of rivers and creeks) and other areas of high biodiversity when assessing development applications in particular areas covered by the biodiversity map.

The main downside of the draft plan is that only 2.3% of the whole of the Council area outside of national parks and nature reserves is covered by E zones. This is easily the smallest area of any of the draft LEPs for North Coast councils we have seen this year.

The map for the biodiversity provision covers a much larger area — about one-third of the council area outside of national parks and nature reserves. However, it only requires Council to “consider” the impacts of developments on terrestrial and aquatic flora and fauna, and to be “satisfied” that adverse impacts can be avoided, minimised or mitigated.

This is a much lower standard than either prohibiting inappropriate development in the first place through the land use tables, or allowing it only with consent. In the latter case, Council has a wide range of matters it must consider under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act before deciding whether to approve, say, a chicken farm or a tourist resort in a rural zone.

Most of the high conservation value land in Lismore is on the ridges and in the steep valleys between the Nightcap Range and the broad valleys cleared for farming long ago around Nimbin, Georgica and Larnook. In the new LEP, most of these high conservation environments are in rural zones, in which environmental protection is not an objective. Houses, quarries, helipads, turf farms, landscape supplies, mining and intensive livestock would all be permitted with Council consent.

Once land is zoned this way, landholders and developers may have a legitimate expectation that, if they comply with the rest of the LEP and any relevant development control plan, their development application will be approved.

The fact that only a small area of land is planned to be protected in E zones may have arisen in part because the new LEP includes the results of vegetation mapping done by consultants, but there was no complementary fauna mapping. Lismore Council has recently employed an ecologist and is preparing a biodiversity strategy. This should eventually provide a sound scientific basis for future rezonings. But LEPs can last a long time, and in the meantime the area’s biodiversity may be inadequately protected.

It would be a relatively easy matter to zone known or likely high conservation value lands in these areas E2 (Environmental Conservation) and other lands of environmental value E3 (Environmental Management). Both offer significantly stronger protection than rural zonings.

The Department of Planning has recognised that significant wildlife habitats and corridors are legitimate criteria for mapping E2 (Environmental Conservation) zones. Converting the areas covered by the biodiversity map in the draft LEP into E zones would result in about one-third of the Council area outside national parks and nature reserves being given good environmental protection.

If Council is concerned that planning for this level of environmental protection would require more data or would arouse too much political opposition, there are other ways to improve the LEP. Publicly available threatened species records, including koala sightings, could be used to identify additional areas suitable for inclusion in E zones. One recognised endangered ecological community, Lowland Rainforest (under 600 metres), appears not to have been identified and mapped, and therefore not zoned appropriately.* Finally, other councils have recognised that it is appropriate to use E zones to create buffer zones adjacent to national parks and nature reserves.

It is important to remember that any new E zones would have minimal impacts on current agricultural activities, as they are protected by existing use rights. That is, as long as they continue in their present form they are unaffected by zoning changes, which are intended to apply to new developments or changes in land use.

For more information about the Lismore Draft LEP 2010, go to www.lismore.nsw.gov.au It is on public exhibition until 29 July.

Mark Byrne is education officer at the EDO Northern Rivers. For more information or help about this or any other environmental law issue, please call 1300 369 791 or email edonr@edo.org.au.

* As distinct from Lowland Rainforest on Coastal Floodplains, which is identified and mapped. More info about the endangered ecological community listing for Lowland Rainforest is available at the DECCW website.

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