Donna Purtle on the land she wants to have re-zoned for urban development in North Lismore.
Donna Purtle on the land she wants to have re-zoned for urban development in North Lismore.

Housing shortage builds in Lismore

Australia’s population is expected to grow by 60% in the next 40 years, with demographers predicting we will need to house a population of 36 million by the year 2050. According to the Department of Planning’s Far North Coast Regional Strategy (2006) we will need to build an additional 51,000 new dwellings by the year 2031, with approximately 8000 of those expected to be in the Lismore Local Government Area (LGA).

But while most other areas in the Northern Rivers seem to be experiencing steady growth, Lismore has slumped in recent years. Since the peak of the recent real estate boom when Lismore City Council approved 206 development applications for new dwellings in 2004/05, the figure has dropped considerably to about 70 for 2008/09.

One of the reasons put forward to explain the drop is a lack of suitable land available for development in the Lismore area.

Paul Deegan has been a real estate agent in Lismore for 23 years and spent 11 years on the board of the Real Estate Institute of NSW. He seems to be a straight talker (which is not always the case in the world of real estate agents) and believes the lack of available land is pushing up prices and pushing people out of the Lismore market.

“We can’t find any reasonably priced, reasonably sloped available land for the middle of the market,” he told The Echo. “There’s some for the top end of the market for $200,000 to $300,000 at Goonellabah and Richmond Hill, but we need land in the $130,000 to $150,000 price range.

“There is a lot of available residential land that has been on the books for over 20 years, but a lot of it is on very steep slopes. There’s so much land at Goonellabah that is zoned residential but Council won’t let you build on it because it is too steep. It’s an ongoing saga – you can’t build on it, yet they count it as available residential land in all the reports... The methodology is flawed, it’s just not working,” he said.

To illustrate his point, Paul Deegan recalled speaking to somebody recently who had bought seven acres in Goonellabah, thinking they would be able to build 30 houses on it. “But it had a 50 metre slope from the top of the block to the bottom, so you’d be lucky to get two or three.”

A report by Price Waterhouse Coopers in 2008 commissioned by a private developer, which analysed the supply and demand issues for urban residential development in the Lismore LGA, backed up these claims. It estimated that 115 hectares of the land zoned for urban development is simply not suitable.

“Site visits to many of the nominated sites suggested that much of the identified land yet to be developed had physical and/or environmental constraints… rendering it unsuitable and unattractive for development,” the report said.

The Price Waterhouse Coopers report suggests the amount of land available in Lismore is not keeping up with demand and is forcing people to other areas, particularly to Casino and other areas to the west.

The Echo was recently contacted by Donna Purtle from a group of landowners who have been trying to have 200 hectares of land included in the Lismore Urban Strategy (LUS) for more than 20 years. The area, known as the North Lismore Plateau, is only two kilometres from the CBD and sits on top of the ridge overlooking the Lismore Showgrounds. A large part of the land has been zoned 1(d), development investigation since 1992, but every time it has been brought up for inclusion in the LUS, it has been knocked back.

The land is elevated and therefore not susceptible to flooding, it is flat, has power and water available and is a short distance to the South Lismore Sewerage Treatment Plant. Donna was also keen to point out that the speedway operates within the EPA noise management plan, so the noise factor is not a constraint to developing the site.

Obviously Donna and the other landowners involved have a financial interest in wanting to have their land re-zoned, but they also believe it would have beneficial impacts for Lismore as a whole, including bringing down the average price of a block of land by increasing the supply, and revitalising the CBD by bringing more people close to town.

“At the moment the only growth that is happening is up in Goonellabah, which is removed from the CBD. People up there are just as likely to go to Ballina (to do their shopping),” Donna said. “If you look at Casino and Kyogle and Ballina, they’re booming, but Lismore is being left behind.”

The North Lismore Plateau site could provide around 1500 sites and Donna said they have been ready to go since 1985.

When asked why it hasn’t been included in the urban strategy, Lismore City Council’s executive director of sustainable development, Brent McAlister, said it was “largely due to the significant infrastructure costs associated with its development”.

Specifically there would need to be a major upgrade to the South Lismore Treatment Plant, a new water reservoir built on the site and the construction of several access roads.

Council’s strategic planning co-ordinator, Paula Newman said there would also need to be a third bridge crossing.

“The traffic studies we have had done show there is already significant bottlenecks into the CBD and constraints on the bridges across the river,” she said.

The increased traffic from North Lismore would require a third crossing which would cost “significant money”.

“There are lots of plusses to the North Lismore site, but the critical infrastructure costs are prohibitive at this point in time,” Mr McAlister said.

Donna Purtle had some other conspiracy theories about the North Lismore landowners not being “the right people” and those with the existing land stock doing some secret backroom deals with Council because they didn’t want to see their prices go down.

Paul Deegan doesn’t buy into the conspiracy theories, but he doesn’t understand why the North Lismore Plateau has been continually rejected.

“I’ve never been able to understand why Lismore Council is so keen to stick their heads in the sand over this... Everyone keeps talking about it but it seems nothing is ever done. It makes no sense to me because there are flat blocks up there, the water runs right past it and there’s a bitumen road access... Council says it’s too expensive to develop; well let the developers find out. If one goes bust, someone else will come along and finish it. The Council would make the developer pay for all the infrastructure costs in any case, so the Council’s argument that it will cost them in terms of infrastructure costs is just another excuse to do nothing. I’d be interested to see when the Council are going to react to the expected population growth. I thought that’s what planning was all about.”

Paul Deegan believes it would be a case of ‘re-zone it and they will come’.

“If you have a large stock of land available then you won’t get as much for them, but that’s not a bad thing. You have to have stock to suit the market that’s available at a price to people who want to build houses here.

“When you’ve got a booming housing market, there are something like 20 trades in the construction of a house and they are nearly all young people working in the building industry these days, and they’ve all got families who are spending money and sending their kids to school. The money goes around. It’s a fantastic thing to see houses going up. It boosts the whole economy,” he said.

The arguments have been going around and around for years with the NSW Department of Planning saying there is “more than enough zoned and subdivided land to satisfy demand for the foreseeable future... enough land to satisfy needs for more than 24 years”. But the real estate agents and the Price Waterhouse Coopers report tell us that Lismore is crying out for residential land.

Paul Deegan believes one of the things stopping new land being released is that it would be a difficult process to delete existing land from the urban strategy that could result in costly legal bills.

Brent McAlister pointed out that there are areas of privately-owned land that could be developed (up to 500 lots) but that “Council has no influence or ability to have it developed and placed on the market.” He also said the target of 8000 dwellings by 2031 was for the whole of the LGA and that “there is currently significant development potential in some of the villages such as Caniaba.”

The other issue for Lismore is the type of housing that will be needed. Population predictions are that there will be a doubling of the over 75 population by 2031 and a 46% increase in the 55-74 age bracket, while other age brackets are expected to fall.

“Lismore LGA will need to provide a range of housing types and styles which serve the needs of the ageing population such as aged care facilities and retirement lifestyle units comprising no more than one or two bedroom dwellings,” stated a report done by Macroplan Australia for the NSW Department of Planning.

This was also a key recommendation of the Westing report to Lismore Council; to have more diversity in the types of housing stock available.

Brent McAlister said Council has taken this advice on board.

“At the December 2009 meeting Council proactively addressed the limited housing choice in Lismore both by resolving to zone additional land release areas, and to address the issue of higher density. We are investigating opportunities for more units and dual occupancies within the city limits,” he said.

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