The ACT's Chief Planner, Ben Ponton, has given a prominent Canberra developer the green light to remove a protected tree in Manuka to make way for a new hotel, in a move residents say pits the big end of town against the community.
The decision to allow the removal of the protected London Plane tree on Franklin Street in Manuka brings developer Sotiria Liangis one step closer to her long-held plans to redevelop the prominent block on Canberra Avenue.
Mr Ponton's decision to allow it came after senior planner George Cilliers approved Mrs Liangis's development application to knock down the Capitol Cinemas and other buildings on the block to build a seven-storey hotel estimated to cost up to $40 million.
But Mrs Liangis, who declined to comment, still faces a final hurdle, as the planning authority's approval was conditional on the Conservator of Flora and Fauna approving removing the tree from the territory's tree protection register.
Griffith Narrabundah Community Association president Leo Dobes said residents were concerned about the lack of parking planned for the new hotel, as well as preserving the tree, which he said a suitable architect could have included as part of a more sensitive design.
But he said there was a wider concern, not just in Manuka, about what he believed was a government increasingly siding with the big end of town to the detriment of the community and public spaces.
"We can understand the pressure the chief planner comes under from the political side of government, but he also recently made a courageous decision in terms of the proposed waste [facility in] Fyshwick, where he reversed a previous government decision.
"But it’s our fervent hope that he can take a few more courageous decisions in terms of protecting the community from private developers - this is not NIMBYism, this is a genuine concern that one part of the community has been given preference by government and the community has no way of fighting back."
A letter sent to interested parties by Conservator Ian Walker, seen by The Canberra Times, shows Mr Ponton allowed the removal of the tree on the grounds it could "significantly compromise the broader strategic objectives of the Territory Plan".
The saga of the tree and Mrs Liangis's redevelopment plans have played out for a number of years through cases in the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal, triggering changes in the Legislative Assembly earlier this year.
But those changes could force Mr Walker to approve the deregistration of the tree, as the conservator must allow the cancellation of the tree from the register, if proposed by the Chief Planner, Mr Ponton.
"At this stage, I consider that the proposal may satisfy that cancellation criteria as the proposals was made by the chief planning executive," the letter reads.
While Mr Walker's letter refers to Mr Ponton and Mrs Liangis as parties proposing the tree's deregistration, a spokeswoman for the planning authority said Mrs Liangis was the proponent.
She also said Mr Ponton was not technically approving the removal of the tree, rather he was acting on the advice of planners who assessed the development application.
"The government and [Mr Ponton], takes environmental responsibilities for tree protection very seriously," she said.
"The chief planner does not support the cancellation of a tree registration, or agree to the removal of a regulated tree, in isolation.
"Prior to any action or decision, the chief planning executive seeks appropriate advice with regard to any tree that may be affected by a proposed development activity and has regard for broader strategic planning objectives as required by the territory’s legislative framework."
While interested parties may send the conservator submissions to the deregistration process (due by December 7), the changes made earlier this year to the regulations could leave Mr Walker's hands tied on the matter.