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Is progress ruining our coast?

10 July 2006

by David Cohen for Prestige Property
Perth Now, powered by The Sunday Times

Do regional developments on coastlines spoil them?

The debate rages on as the latest development plans for Smiths Beach, near Yallingup, try to get off the ground.

BUNKER Bay in the South-West has a "gently shelving shoreline of fine white sand". It has a north facing beach "lapped by turquoise water". You can go fishing, or paddle out to The Farm, "a celebrated surf break". And snorkellers can check out some "spectacular marine life".

Developer Mirvac Finiís copywriters use lots of superlatives in describing their latest project.

Bunker Bay changed the environment. There was once little trace of people now there are 150 villas. Many people say it is a good development but do regional developments on much loved coastlines spoil them? Or do they preserve what attracts people to them in the first place?

The latest proposed South West development is Smiths Beach, near Yallingup. Itís a contentious issue thatís been going on for years. An action group is opposed to what the developer proposes, while others say it will add benefits to the area.

Developer Canal Rocks Pty Ltd will soon submit its third plan for the development. The first plan had 690 houses and units, the second 386.

Yallingup resident and Smiths Beach Action Group spokesman Kevin Merifield says the reason the South West is such a popular tourist destination is that its beaches and coastline are primarily unspoilt.

"There were more than 3000 submissions opposing the first proposal from the developer and they all effectively said the same thing: ĎDonít spoil our lovely coastlineí," Mr Merifield says.

"Thereís a place for well planned and well developed tourist facilities in selected locations on our coast, but such developments shouldnít compromise the amenity and landscape and environmental values of these areas."

Mr Merifield says other projects in the South West show there is a place for sensitive development. "New residential areas like Dalyellup, just out of Bunbury, Vasse Newtown, and the proposed Provence near Busselton are good examples of how ordinary land can be developed into quite attractive residential lifestyle estates," he says.

Bunker Bay also gets the tick of approval.

"Itís a good example of a development thatís been done quite nicely and in about the right proportions," Mr Merifield says. "Itís well hidden, back beyond the sand dunes, itís tastefully architecturally designed and built, and about the right size."

Some South West residents arenít worried if the Smiths Beach development is on the coast. One believes Canal Rocksí second proposal was fine and should have gone ahead.

The resident did not want to be identified because "itís just too sensitive". "I donít spend my time looking at the coast. I look out at the water or along the beach," the resident says.

Itís a challenge to get the right balance between development and conservation, but amenities on Smiths Beach would benefit locals.

"Itís really hard, thereís no easy solution," the resident says. "Thereís a diverse range of opinion and you can never satisfy everyone. As a tourism operator I believe it would bring new customers into the area that alone would be a good thing."

She believes the development would increase the attraction of the area, instead of spoiling it.

"The action group has done a tremendous job in getting a sense of balance," she says. "But in the last proposal, a compromise had been reached.

"This is my personal opinion and not that of any group I belong to. Friendships can be broken over issues like these Smiths Beach is a very contentious issue down here." One of the action groupís concerns is the size of the proposed development.

"The last lot of plans had 114 permanent residential lots and 272 short stay villas. Thatís before a 100 room hotel, a 60 bed backpackers, and 2000sq??m of retail," Mr Merifield says. "Compare that to Bunker Bay about 150 short stay units , and Yallingup Hill about 168 residential lots . Smiths Beach is more than two and a half times the size of those developments. "Weíre not against development, but letís scale it down to something in reasonable proportion. Letís try and retain as much of the landscape as we can."

A big development on a coast isnít necessarily a bad one, from an environmental point of view. In New South Wales a 68ha project has won a Planning Institute of Australia award in rural and regional planning last year.

North Sapphire Beach, north of Coffs Harbour, is a 365 dwelling development, but more than half the land is established mature trees in a mature coastal ecosystem.

"Iím passionately keen about villages and filthy on sprawl. I get involved with clients who have the same passions," explains the projectís planner, Stephen Connelly.

"My aim for the site was to make it as sustainable as we could. I wanted it to be a community, not just another subdivision, and to touch lightly on the landscape."

One way of achieving that was to leave all the trees and plants alone.

"We went to the site and with the flora and fauna guy identified all the vegetation types, and we came to a view that we would leave everything there," Mr Connelly says.

Perhaps because of this, the local action group gave the development its approval. "They had concerns about development, so rather than be combative we had a yarn with them," Mr Connelly says. "They hugged us a most unusual thing, in my game."

Will Canal Rocks be hugging the Smiths Beach Action Group? Canal Rocks chairman David McKenzie didnít respond to an interview request. But others have given his proposed development their endorsement hug Australian Test cricketer Justin Langer, for example. In Canal Rocksí promotional literature, Mr Langer is paraphrased as saying he believes the development would blend in with the landscape and has a "family" character.

Why do some not like the Smiths Beach plans, but do like Bunker Bay?

David Caddy, the acting national president of the Planning Institute of Australia, says the latter dealt with the politics of the area.

"Bunker Bay has done extremely well because itís an excellent response to the landform and local politics," he says. "It doesnít try to dominate the landform."

Mr Caddy couldnít comment on the Smiths Beach proposals because he hasnít seen them. But he sees wider general problems with regional development in WA.

"I am concerned the State Government is pursuing a one size fits all policy where coastal development is concerned," he says.

"The regional policy does not allow a response to the local environment. There should be an ability within the regional policy to accommodate a good idea, but the most recent building heights policy, we understand, applies from Broome to Albany. We need a better, more varied regional policy."

The State Government says what applies in Scarborough, for example, also applies in Albany. "All planning these days is compromise," Mr Caddy says. "Itís participatory, and it must also be transparent. Bunker Bay is the result of participation, and I think itís a good result. Scarborough is also the result of participation, but I donít think itís a good result."

No one is proposing five storeys on Smiths Beach, but what will eventually be there? Will it damage the environment or amenity of the area? Not according to the anonymous Yallingup resident.

"Itís a trade off," she says. "A community facility has been proposed, and thereís a great opportunity for the community to get something out of it. We can raise money to get things for our community."

Kevin Merifield is not optimistic that what will eventually be built will be the action groupís preferred option. He thinks the matter will end up in the State Administrative Tribunal, and fears not enough of the original landscape will remain.

"Theyíre trying to sell pretty pictures to everyone and unless you understand what those pretty pictures mean, and what impact the development will have, the inexperienced might think, ĎYes, that looks pretty goodí," Mr Merifield says.

"We would like to think that the third time around they would submit something that meets community expectations however, weíre not optimistic from what weíve seen to date as it seems they are still only tinkering at the edges and not addressing the real issues of scale and visual impact."

© Copyright 2006 by The Sunday Times. This report is for information only in order to inform readers about the this Sunday Times report. No charge for such use is made and the material is not being used for commercial purposes. The text has not been modified from the original report.

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