The ACT Assembly looks set to pass new planning laws on Tuesday that appear to give an effective carte blanche to tram-related construction within 1 km of the light-rail corridor - including seven new electricity substations and overhead lines, access roads, stops, stations, parking and more.
Any development judged "related to light rail" and to do with construction, operation, maintenance and other work 1 km each side of the line will be largely exempted from normal planning laws.
The judgement about what projects are "related to light rail" is left in the hands of the bureaucracy, within a broad definition that it should be to do with construction, operation, maintenance, repair, refurbishment, relocation or replacement of light rail track or infrastructure within 1 km of the track. The legislation does not say the infrastructure needs to be specifically light-rail infrastructure, although it gives examples including construction work, stops, stations, shelters, seating, toilets, ticketing infrastructure, parking, bicycle storage, safety barriers, electricity supply infrastructure, signalling and control facilities and the depot.
The 1 km net will take in many of the suburbs in Canberra's inner north. With an early extension to Russell now on the table, it also affects suburbs within 1 km of Constitution Avenue. But the legislation goes wider still, applying also to any future extension of the tram to other parts of the city.
This possibility has the Inner South Community Council worried, chairman Gary Kent writing to Planning Minister Mick Gentleman asking for an urgent rethink.
Mr Kent compared the Bill to the "late but unlamented" fast-track planning laws the government was forced to withdraw last year, which also scrapped normal planning rules. The previous attempt applied to any project declared significant. The new legislation is specific to the tram.
But Mr Kent pointed out that the definitions are wide enough to apply to a "broad swathe" of the city, and vague enough in the description of light rail that it could feasibly encompass developments within 1 km of the old Kingston railway line as well.
The Bill appeared to apply to "any road, or power line, that passes within 1 km of an existing or proposed light rail track at any point in its length", he said.
While the explanatory material said the planning department could not declare residential development to be "related to light rail", it was difficult to see what that reassurance was based on, as there was no way of questioning the declarations.
"This appears to be a total watering down of the planning process. Every measure in this Bill enables less scrutiny and accountability even down to the last one, less documentation," he said, questioning the rush and lack of consultation. "There was so much opposition to the Bill last year, we can't understand why this one has just popped out."
Under the Bill, the government will not have to take the advice of the Conservator of Flora and Fauna, the Heritage Council, the Environmental Protection Agency or any other entity, if it believes it would cause significant delay or increase in costs. The government says it doesn't expect registered trees to be an issue in the Gungahlin to the city corridor, but they could be in possible future extensions.
Nor will projects need the usual documentation, including statements setting out how the development meets relevant rules and criteria, environmental assessments and surveys.
Decisions on the projects (and decisions to declare projects "related to light rail") will not be appealable, other than common law rights to appeal to the Supreme Court, which the legislation limits to a 60-day window.
The changes also allow the Minister to limit any Assembly inquiry into Territory Plan changes on light rail to just three months.
Introducing the legislation in November, Planning Minister Mick Gentleman said it would "smooth the way" for a project of great significance by fast-tracking construction.
Court delays could amount to months or years, creating uncertainty which could be "especially problematic" for high-priority developments, he said. Reducing the amount of documentation required would allow approvals "to proceed expeditiously and with greater clarity".
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.