Hughes and Garran residents are taking Planning Minister Mick Gentleman to task for suggesting the community has "endorsed" a plan to build 125 retirement units on the Federal Golf Course in Red Hill, including an access road cutting through existing urban open space off Kitchener Street.
They say Mr Gentleman was being "disingenuous" when he issued a media release in June stating the Red Hill Integrated Plan had been "endorsed by the local community" when there was clearly opposition to it and the government's own engagement report showed there was not majority support - as required by the Assembly - for the critical recommendation allowing the golf club to pursue the retirement village at the southern end of its course.
Instead, there are accusations the plan is causing deep divisions in the suburbs around the Red Hill Nature Reserve and the Federal Golf Club and that there has been an attempt by the government to "divide and conquer" local interest groups by giving some what they want and leaving others out to dry.
The final plan was meant to be the last chapter in the decades-long debate around the Federal Golf Club's desire to go ahead with some kind of development on its leased prime inner-south site to shore up its financial future and guarantee its ongoing existence.
Golf club director and development committee chair Bob Correll said the club would not run the retirement village, but receive about $20 million from the developer to increase its water security and upgrade its facilities, including the ageing clubhouse.
"The club is in fairly extreme need of financial support," Mr Correll said.
"In the last 12 years, the club has achieved net operating losses every year except one. The year it did achieve a net operating profit, it was for $20,000. Over that 12-year period of time, the net operating losses have been around $1.5 million. In the last two financial years, the club has suffered substantial net operating losses. Whenever we hit a period of drought, the club has an absolutely disastrous year. The club's cost for water last year was over $400,000."
The club has a bore licence but also buys potable water. Its plans to install additional ponds with money from the planned retirement village might seem counter-intuitive when water was such an issue, but Mr Correll said it meant that the overall water security would increase.
"Our pond capacity is about 16 megalitres in two relatively small ponds. We're looking to increase it up to about 60 megalitres," Mr Correll said.
"With 60 megaltires, we would get a much longer coverage of water during drought periods. In the end, would you have to ultimately resort to some potable water? You may have to but it will be far, far less and only in emergency situations."
Groups who have long fought against any development by the golf club, such as the Red Hill Regenerators and ACT Conservation Council, have now supported the final Red Hill Integrated Plan because it removes the chance of any development on the Red Hill Nature Reserve itself or the northern end of the course.
Red Hill Regenerators president Ross Kingsland said the final plan "resolved many of the issues we've been grappling with for decades and does give a balance between the environmental issues and maintaining the golf course".
"If any development goes ahead, there will be some impact but we felt that the proposal that has been put forward is one that we could accept," he said.
ACT Conservation Council executive director Helen Oakey said it was pleased the plan protected the northern end of the golf course against future commercial or residential redevelopment which "would have impacted heavily on the ecological values of the nature reserve and woodland".
"We continue to advocate for the inclusion of 12.5 hectares of high quality woodland to be rezoned into Red Hill Nature Reserve once the plan is finalised," Ms Oakey said.
"The proposed low-impact development aft the south end of the site will require ongoing monitoring to ensure that it delivers the best environmental outcome for the area, including appropriate buffers between the development and the woodlands."
However, Deakin Residents Association president John Bell said, contrary to what the government maintained, it had not fully supported the final Red Hill plan but only agreed that it was something "it could live with".
And other groups such as the Hughes Residents Association and Garran Residents Association are still fighting the plan, saying an association purporting throughout the process to represent the communities was in fact three residents who didn't want any development at the northern end of the golf course near their homes.
The associations are circulating a petition calling for the proposed retirement village and access road off Kitchener Street to be scrapped and for the Assembly to reject amendments to the Territory Plan that would enable housing development on the site of the Federal Golf Course. The e-petition had as of Saturday been signed by 865 people.
Hughes Residents Association co-convenor John Griffin said an access road off Kitchener Street, at the border of Hughes and Garran, would be dangerous and be built through open space that was home to parrots and gang-gang cockatoos, contained remnant gum woodland and was a precious recreation space for local residents.
But besides that, the Red Hill Integrated Plan did not satisfy an Assembly resolution that it only include developments that had a "reasonable likelihood of majority community support".
"It's just ignoring the will of the parliament," Mr Griffin said.
Long-time Garran resident Mari Kondo said the urban open space off Kitchener Street needed to be preserved for current and future residents. She said a petition in 2017 signed by 3100 people to stop housing development on the golf course had led to the Red Hill Integrated plan - which was now perversely recommending housing development.
"If they do go ahead with that, all this beautiful green space in the Garran/Hughes woodland would be destroyed to allow access to the housing development," she said.
Mr Griffin said the groups would be more likely to support a development such as that put forward by Nikias Diamond, including a boutique hotel at the golf club, because it kept development within the footprint of the existing facilities. They have also questioned the true financial state of the golf course, saying it could attract more members with better facilities, not an on-site retirement village.
A review for the golf club by Bellchambers Barrett in 2018 found it was "currently financially solvent and able to pay its debts as and when they become due and payable". The review acknowledged the club had made a series of losses and "one of the primary reasons for these losses has been the downward trend in the membership numbers", then a 51 per cent decrease since 2007. The review suggested the club did not have the capacity to generate surplus funds or borrow money to pay for the additional water infrastructure and other works. It could if the retirement village was built, while also boosting membership because "upon settlement of each independent living unit, the development proposal is expected to contribute five years of memberships fees paid in advance to the club".
"Dependent on approval and the number of independent living unit sales, the proposed development resources contributed by the village is capable of assisting the club to be financially sustainable into the future," the Bellchambers Barrett report concluded.
An engagement report by the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Planning Directorate found there was majority support for recommendations one to six of the draft plan. Those recommendations included the ongoing protection and management of the Red Hill Nature Reserve, capping the old Deakin tip and creating an open space buffer on vacant land between Kent Street in Deakin and the red Hill Nature Reserve. There was only "strong support" for recommendation seven which allowed the retirement village to be built.
Mr Gentleman said in his media release that the government received "929 pieces of feedback with the majority of submissions supportive of the plan". A total of 423 of those responses were from Federal Gold Club members who were sent a form letter from the club to submit. In the directorate's drop-in sessions, 11 per cent of people supported the Red Hill plan and in responses to an online survey, 38 per cent supported the plan and 37 per cent opposed it.
"On balance, the responses showed a reasonable likelihood of majority community support," a government spokesperson said this week.
A spokesman for the ACT Government said any change to the zoning of the Red Hill site would require a Territory Plan Variation, including a referral to the Legislative Assembly's Standing Committee on Planning, Transport and City Services.
The committee, chaired by Greens MLA Jo Clay, would have to decide if community consultation should go ahead before the vote was put to the Assembly.
Formers Greens MLA Caroline Le Couteur said she was pleased the plan ruled out development at the top of the golf course but "totally understood" concerns around likely development further down the course. She believed the government's consultation had been "better than average" but empathised with people who still felt not heard.
"It is very divisive in the local community," she said.
Liberal Murrumbidgee MLA Giulia Jones is sponsoring the residents' petition to scrap the retirement village. She said she was more concerned about residents being heard.
"There are very strong views about it," she said.
"I could even cope with the government saying, 'We know it had to have majority support but we now realise we have so many elderly people we now need these units'. Just have an honest conversation with the community instead of just riding roughshod over them."
The spokesperson for the government said anyone could have contributed to the community consultation to date.
"The public engagement processes were open to the whole Canberra community and included a wide range of stakeholder groups including the relevant community councils, the local residents' associations and environmental organisations with an interest in the area. Community groups were also involved in the process of preparing the plan from the outset," a statement read.
The residents' e-petition is here.
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