In the outer southwest suburbs of Brisbane there is just one ridgeline above the Brisbane River that is still covered with remnant native bush. That ridge was protected because a local community group had the gumption to challenge a proposed development in court, represented by EDO Qld.
Save Our Riverfront Bushland (SORB) is a group of committed residents in the Centenary suburbs of Brisbane (outer southwest suburbs fringing the Brisbane River) that acts to protect remnant bushland, maintain public access to the riverfront and lobby for adequate open space.
In June 1999 Brisbane City Council approved a residential development of up to 90 allotments on 7.4 hectares of bushland at Fremont St, Seventeen Mile Rocks. It included 17 lots on a ridgeline zoned in the 1987 Town Plan (in force when the application was made) as Non Urban in a category for “natural or semi-natural areas having high value for habitat conservation, landscape protection or waterway protection”.
In a seven day hearing in late 2000, SORB challenged the Council’s decision in the Planning and Environment Court. It was a demanding case for a community group to take on. With five expert witnesses, SORB focused on the damaging impacts of the proposed development on the aesthetics, recreational value and flora and fauna of the ridgeline.
Despite attempts by the developer’s lawyers to discredit SORB’s experts, Judge Brabazon accepted SORB’s case. He found that the ridgeline was an important local feature warranting protection: “It remains the only relatively undisturbed escarpment and ridgeline close to the river as it winds its way through the city. It is the last remaining undisturbed ridgeline in the centenary suburbs. It is a relatively large area.”
Judge Brabazon determined that the proposed development of the ridgeline was unacceptable: “In short, the strategic aim of looking at the long term, ensuring the green space needs of future generations, and providing a balance to growth, would not have been observed.”
Brisbane City Council accepted the court’s decision. The ridgetop is now protected as parkland with a road separating it from houses. The development was substantially scaled back, to just one-third of the allotments originally proposed, and removal of trees was restricted.
Since the case, the site’s values have been further recognised with its vegetation now classified as an endangered regional ecosystem and ‘essential habitat’ under the State’s vegetation laws.
According to SORB spokesperson Ed Parker, the win was important not only for protecting biodiversity, scenic values and recreational space but for ‘demonstrating to city planners and developers that the community should not be taken for granted when it comes to protection of our environmental heritage’.
Taking on the city council and wealthy developers was an onerous but powerful experience for a small community group committee of five. Persistence, good research and resources were the ingredients for their success, according to Ed. The case cost $5000, funded by members, with the experts providing pro bono or discounted services. SORB members volunteered hundreds of hours in researching, writing and preparing draft legal documentation for EDO review and advice.
EDO Qld advised SORB in the pre-trial period when they were self-represented and then represented the group along with barrister Stephen Keliher during the hearing.
"Without the assistance of EDO, our community group would have been hard-pressed to identify and meet all the legal challenges," Ed says.
"Representation in court by Steve Keliher and EDO were key factors in the ultimate win."
SORB believes that legal representation, or at least legal assistance, is essential for newcomers seeking to appeal a planning decision.
"Through this and subsequent cases, members have learnt that the environmental and planning soundness of one’s arguments, while important, are not sufficient on their own," Ed says.
Legal cases can be harrowing experiences with many pitfalls as well as opportunities.
"A lay person cannot hope to appreciate and adapt quickly enough to these without the assistance of an organisation like EDO and its helpful and dedicated staff."