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Newcastle Herald

Clean start for village

Date: 21/08/2010
Words: 1016
Source: NCH
          Publication: Newcastle Herald
Section: H2
Page: 7
With new financial partners and no political baggage, LWP has renewed its effort to win approval for Huntlee village, writes FRANCES THOMPSON.

THE merits of creating Huntlee, a proposed new town in the Hunter of up to 20,000 people, are again under scrutiny as the project takes its second swing through the NSW planning process.

With new documents lodged this week, Danny Murphy, managing director of the Western Australia-based developer LWP, was in the Hunter to announce his determination to get the troubled project approved.

This time around the NSW government's approval process will also be under scrutiny. A legal decision in 2009 scuttled Rose Corp's Catherine Hill Bay development, then the Huntlee project and left public confidence in the planning process in tatters.

At $1.8 billion, Huntlee is one of the biggest developments in NSW.

Huntlee's progress became snagged when a Land and Environment Court decision in October 2009 said conservation land offsets included in the Catherine Hill Bay development, were "land bribes".

The offsets were in memorandums of understanding and later deeds of agreement signed by the then planning minister Frank Sartor and which the court found could have induced him to approve Catherine Hill Bay.

The Huntlee proposal had similar conservation land offsets.

When Kristina Keneally became planning minister she approved Huntlee's concept plan and rezoning but after the court decision, she had to admit she had acted unlawfully.

"This time we will work with government to get the process right," Murphy said. "We got an outcome before, it's just there was a problem with the process."

Huntlee was declared a state significant project in the early days of its approvals. Because of the court decision, it must start again.

The state planning minister takes control of state significant projects and local councils have little input in the assessment and approval.

Huntlee's documents were lodged on Wednesday.

"Through the [court] decision there was never a query on the merits of the proposal," Murphy said.

Murphy said LWP lost $40 million because the approval process for the project failed.

LWP, primed with a new investor - family agribusiness company Kahlbetzer and its Twynam Group (see inset) - have created a new entity called Huntlee Pty Ltd to create the new town.

ALP donor and developer Duncan Hardie's Hardie Holdings was out, Murphy said. Lehman Brothers, which had a $35 million investment in the project, is also gone.

LWP, through its holding company Huntlee Holdings, bought into Huntlee in 2007 for $185 million from Hardie.

Huntlee was previously known as Sweetwater, a Hardie Holdings development. Opponents said it was too big, lacked infrastructure and was environmentally destructive.

The unlawful deeds of agreement, which approved the land offsets, are gone but more than 5000 hectares of land elsewhere in the Lower Hunter land will be dedicated to conservation, as was planned originally.

This process will be managed under voluntary planning agreements, which Murphy said would be publicly available in their draft form and open for comment.

There appears to be few changes to Huntlee.

"We have decreased the size of the villages and put more into the town centre," Murphy said. "Looking out 25 years, we need more medium-density housing in and around the town centre."

It is what has happened around Huntlee that project opponent and Cessnock councillor James Ryan said should confirm the development was not in the public interest.

Now that work has started on the Hunter Expressway that links the New England Highway at Branxton to the F3 freeway near Newcastle, Murphy said Huntlee would not have to carry out roadworks previously demanded by the Roads and Traffic Authority.

The RTA found Huntlee's transport assumptions "totally unacceptable" and warned that the New England Highway would not cope with more traffic.

RailCorp and the NSW Transport Ministry worried that Huntlee would "further entrench" the area's high dependency on cars.

Ryan said that with the expressway, Huntlee would be a "car-dependent satellite city".

"That is the exact opposite to where we need to be heading," Ryan said. "It is just repeating all those mistakes of the Sydney Basin and we know better."

Huntlee proposes 7500 dwellings, hundreds of residential lots and promises about 4000 jobs that will employ people within its four villages.

Until the development has reached a "critical mass", Murphy said there would be "leakage" of people in their cars from the site.

Huntlee expects the government to provide public transport and is willing to supplement services.

In assessing Huntlee, RailCorp said last year that lack of track capacity and carriages would prohibit carrying more passengers by rail on the Branxton line.

Ryan said residential developments proposed at Rutherford, Lochinvar and Farley areas - where more than 3000 housing lots are planned - will further complicate Huntlee's approval process.

He said the developers want Huntlee approval "rushed" ahead of the March 2011 state election.

The NSW opposition has vowed to remove the unpopular Part 3A provisions of the planning laws that apply to state significant projects and a review of the concept of state significance.

State Opposition planning spokesman Brad Hazzard said Part 3A destroyed community confidence in planning processes.

The government said the provision "engages the community by improving consultation and transparency".

Changes to Huntlee, if any, won't be revealed until its second round of concept and project plans are lodged.

Meanwhile, Hardie Holdings have met state government representatives over the Sanctuary Villages project in the Millfield area, similarly affected by last year's court decision on land offsets.


IF APPROVED, Huntlee will be developed by a 50/50 partnership of the Western Australia-based LWP Property Group and the Kahlbetzer family, whose agribusiness Twynam Group has large land holdings in NSW. It was the largest owner of private water in NSW until last year, when it sold entitlements worth $303 million to the federal government - the single largest water buy back in Australia's history.

LWP managing director Danny Murphy said the Kahlbetzer family approached LWP to invest in Huntlee because it was looking to diversify.

Twynam was founded in the 1970s by John Dieter Kahlbetzer.

The Kahlbetzer family also established LIAG Argentina in the 1980s. LIAG has large agricultural holdings in Argentina.

- Frances Thompson

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