ACT has amassed more than 4000ha of rural land, still buying
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ACT has amassed more than 4000ha of rural land, still buying

The ACT government has amassed more than 4000 hectares of rural land in the past four years and is in talks to buy more, despite an audit underway into a series of past purchases.

The government has bought at least $43.7 million worth of rural land since the start of 2014, several purchases of which are currently the subject of an ACT Auditor-General investigation.

While Chief Minister Andrew Barr is moving to lift height limits along Northbourne Avenue and in town centres citing a lack of available land for residential development, his government continues to buy vast swathes of land for that purpose.

Most of the land bought in recent years is found in a vast tract of land stretching from the western ACT-NSW border through West Belconnen past Holt, through rural Stromlo as far south as Weston Creek.

While it is unclear exactly how much various arms of the government owns, a Fairfax analysis shows it now owns at least 4095ha of rural land along the city's western outskirts, amounting to some 1.7 per cent of the total land mass of the ACT.

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It includes rural blocks transferred by the Land Development Agency to the Suburban Land Agency last year, as well as rural land the government has since bought and the main blocks forming part of the Ginninderry development.

It excludes government land acquisitions in NSW and conservation land set aside as offsets Ginninderry, but does include some other government-owned blocks pegged for residential development or associated infrastructure.

Since 2014, the government has spent at least $43.7 million on eight major rural land purchases, including around Mount Stromlo: the $10 million acquisition of Huntly, $7 million spent on Milapuru, $3.1 million on Fairvale and $7.5 million on Winslade.

In the same period in the Belconnen area, it spent $3 million on Lands End, $4.5 million on West Belconnen (Ginninderry) and related blocks already owned by government and $4.6 million on Pine Ridge near Belconnen and $4 million on Wintergarden.

Auditor-General Maxine Cooper last year began an audit of all rural land purchases since 2012, which was widening to include recent purchases, and a Legislative Assembly committee earlier this year urged the government not to buy any more until the audit was completed.

But the government has pressed on, buying the Pine Ridge and Winslade properties last year under the questionable land acquisition policies of the former LDA, with purchase talks underway on more blocks.

While the Suburban Land Agency controls the land and development phase, the acquisition function previously held by the Land Development was transferred to the planning directorate, which has confirmed it is in talks with more rural land holders regarding potential purchases.

The Canberra Times understands the government is in talks with Elvin Group, the owners of two rural blocks on either side of Pine Ridge, Block 1582 and 1599; but neither the company nor the government would confirm the nature of those talks.

As part of the Ginninderry development, the government needs to eventually turn Drake Brockman Drive into a dual carriageway road, which may form part of those talks, but Elvin Group would not say if the talks extended to a purchase of the firm's entire holdings in the area.

The government is also in talks with Pegasus Riding for the Disabled over allowing it to take over a small portion of their land for the road widening.

But Pegasus chief executive Jane Thompson said the group would "be staying put, absolutely" and said the government had only approached them about acquiring "a few metres" of their land, currently held on concessional lease.

She said it could be 10 years before it would be needed to build the road, but she expected there could be some sort of contribution to Pegasus' infrastructure on-site to make up for the loss of land.

A spokesman for the SLA said the government would respond "in due course" to the committee's recommendations.

He said the government had not bought any more rural land since the Pine Ridge purchase and that "it would be inappropriate to comment on ongoing negotiations with potential vendors".

Daniel Burdon

Daniel Burdon is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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