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Photo: Shawn Smits

Rural landholders have lost a planning stoush with the government over the proposed indigenous bush retreat for drug and alcohol rehabilitation near Tharwa, despite their fears it would undermine the area's ''rural character''.

The Ngunnawal Bush Healing Farm, earmarked for a rural property on Paddy's River Road, is envisioned as a therapeutic community that reconnects participants with their land and culture to foster rehabilitation.

It will work with youths away from ''the temptations of the city'' with a strong focus on Aboriginal spirituality and principles.

The concept was first promoted a decade ago, but the construction of the residential facility has been mired in planning for years.

Late last year, neighbouring landholders appeared before the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal arguing for a review of a decision to vary the lease on the land to allow for a ''group or organised camp'' at a portion of the site.

The Rural Landholders Association, along with other nearby residents, argued that the decision would have ''unacceptable social and environmental impacts'' and said that public policy should protect them in the quiet enjoyment of their rural leases.

They said the site near Paddy's River was not suitable for the development, and that other spots in the ACT were better suited for the proposed healing farm.

The landholders argued the spot was more than 30 minutes from a hospital, could be cut off by flooding, and was vulnerable to bushfires.

One neighbouring couple expressed fears the farm would undermine the rural character of the area, cause a loss of privacy and affect their rural views.

They feared the use of a fire pit at the retreat posed a bushfire risk, and that Paddy's River, a water source for one family, would be polluted.

The tribunal also heard arguments that the zoning of the land did not permit the use proposed in the lease variation, and that the planned facility did not fit in the definition of ''group or organised camp''.

The challenge held up progress on the healing farm, and the ACT Planning and Land Authority has been forced to wait for the tribunal's decision before taking the next step and considering the development application for the facility.

But last week the tribunal handed down its decision, saying it was satisfied the lease could be varied to include the purpose of a ''group or organised camp'' and still be consistent with the zoning requirements.

''Having viewed the subject land and surrounding land extensively, and taking into account the submissions as to rural character, quiet enjoyment and amenity, the tribunal considers that the relevant portion of the land is in principle suitable for use as a group or organised camp.

''The concerns of the parties as to probable impacts, both social and environmental, are largely speculative and did not persuade the tribunal that the correct or preferable decision would be to refuse the lease variation.''

The tribunal did agree with ACTPLA that it should make some changes to the lease to address some of the concerns raised by the landholders. That includes providing a proper plan of the portion of land that will be used for a ''group or organised camp''.