What if I told you that Council is currently in the process of undertaking a critically important exercise that will have a significant impact on the protection of native vegetation and sensitive ecological areas and you will probably never hear about it?

No, it’s not Council’s draft Biodiversity Strategy that is currently on public exhibition, it’s called the Conservation Zone Review. Unlike the Biodiversity Strategy, which simply articulates Council’s intended objectives and actions towards a particular goal, rezoning decisions such as the Conservation Zone Review provide a legally binding framework for protecting environmentally sensitive areas in the Shire.

Before I tell you more about it, let’s take a quick look back at how we ended up in the situation we are in today.

The 1987 BLEP

In 1987, Ballina Shire introduced the Ballina Local Environment Plan (BLEP), which categorised the entire Shire into a series of 21 different zones, and outlined their objective and the activities that were permissible with/without consent within them.

A central part of the 1987 BLEP was seven distinct environmental zones (designated with a “7” in front), which provided protection for the unique and specific characteristics of our Shire, including land that constituted the urban buffer between Alstonville and Wollongbar (7i), the Newrybar Scenic Escarpment (7d1), as well as wetlands (7a), coastal lands (7f) and water catchment areas (7c) to name a few.

The 1987 BLEP prevented development that was clearly inappropriate, for example it stopped developers from building 5-star resorts on the coastal reserve or undertaking agricultural activities on sensitive wetlands. It was sensible, and reflected residents’ expectations for how our Shire should develop.

Little did Council know at the time that things would get much worse for the environment in NSW (and the rest of the world for that matter) by the end of the century.

The 2012 “Standard Instrument”

In 2006 the NSW State Government introduced a standardised Local Environment Plan (LEP) template for all Local Government Areas in NSW. The Standard Instrument had a much simpler set of zones, including four Conservation Zones (C1-4). One of the notable differences between the 2012 Standard Instrument and the 1987 BLEP is that there is no zone to protect areas based on scenic amenity alone. 

Nevertheless, Councils went about the complex, but necessary process of transitioning the 1987 BLEP zones into the 2012 Standard Instrument zones. By September 2012, Ballina Council’s new LEP was in the final stages of approval by the NSW State Government, when the then Minister for Planning, Brad Hazzard, made a decision to “defer” the 2012 standardised LEP’s environmental protection zones in five Northern Rivers Councils (including Ballina) pending further review. This was in response to fierce lobbying from landowners, whose were upset about the zones being applied to their land.

To this day, the affected parcels of land are referred to in the planning system as "deferred matters". It consisted of land that had a 7 (Environmental Protection) zone, but also some categories of rurally zoned land which were considered to be of environmental value. Combined, deferred matters land constitutes almost a quarter of the Shire. 

This was the first in a number of unforgivable environmental sins committed by the Coalition government under the watch of the National Party in the Northern Rivers, including failing to respond to community outrage over Coal Seam Gas (CSG), and overhauling key pieces of environmental protection legislation sending us into a death spiral of biodiversity loss from which we have yet to recover. Unsurprisingly the community had their revenge at the 2015 NSW State Election by electing Tamara Smith from the Greens on a 27% swing, which she has retained to this day.

The dual LEP legacy

Three years later, the Department of Planning finally got around to publishing their review of those deferred environmental protection zones, known as the "Northern E-Zones Review", which proposed both a revised land use table to be applied in the subject Councils (including Ballina). It also included changes to the circumstances in which E Zones could be applied to farmland. These changes significiantly favoured agriculturalists, which is evident by the fact that "extensive agriculture" is now a permitted land use without development consent in a C3 Zone and with consent in a C2 Zone, where it was previously prohibited.

When the time came for Balling Council to decide what to do with the deferred matters land, they made the decision not to adopt the Standard Instrument E-Zones. In other words, any deferred matters land would maintain its zoning under the 1987 LEP and everything else would be zoned under the new Standard Instrument LEP. 

This occured before I was elected to Council but I suspect that this decision was made because of converging interests. Some Councillors likely felt like the new E-Zones were not restrictive enough, some likely felt like they were still too restrictive, while others were concerned about the inability to use E-Zones to protect land for scenic amenity.

And so to date. Ballina Council has remained one of a handful of Local Government Areas in NSW that operate on a dual-LEP system. So, an initiative that was designed to make things simpler, actually ended up making things much more complicated.

The C Zone Review…

While the State Government was displeased with Council's decision not to adopt the new E-Zones, it did not intervene, on the understanding that Council would eventually progress towards the integration of the two LEPs.

Since that time, Council has to and froed in its approach to addressing these deferred matters and integrating the two LEPs. The current approach (endorsed by the previous Council under the leadership of Mayor David Wright) was to begin by applying the 2012 E Zones to 2500 hectares of land that is currently has a rural zone under the 1987 BLEP but which in fact meets the criteria for a C2 (Environmental Conservation) zone because of its environmental characteristics. This includes land that is known to be koala habitat, littoral rainforest, wetlands or threatened species habitat.

This is what is referred to as the Conservation Zone Review, which is now underway following an extensive mapping process. Council has also produced a fact sheet on the C Zone Review here. While the majority of deferred matters land subject to the C Zone Review is farmland on the Alstonville plateau, up to a third of land is located along the coastal escarpment from Newrybar to East Ballina. You can see all of the affected land parcels on Council's maps database (click on the "C Zone Review" overlay). 

The C Zone Review is controversial because it requires a change of zoning from a rural zone, which is regulated by Local Land Services (an agency of the NSW State Government) to a environmental protection zone, which is regulated by Council. Because environmental protection zones are applied to land that is recognised as being protected, the permissable land uses are narrower. 

Currently, land zoned as an environmental protection (7) under the 1987 LEP is excluded from the C Zone Review, but will need to be addressed at a later date if Council want a single LEP system.

E Zones or C Zones?

Because things weren’t complicated enough, at some point around 2020, E-Zones were changed to C-Zones because the name E-Zones was being used to refer to Employment Zones, however this only affected the name of the zones and nothing else. 

Environmental protection vs. property rights

Much of the opposite to the C Zone Review relates to uncertainty about land use and "the right to farm" (a concept broadly describing the desire by farmers to undertake lawful agricultural practices without conflict or interference arising from complaints from neighbours and other land users). However overlayed with these fears is the belief that Conservation Zones will reduce the value of agricultural land.

At the same time, Council needs to consider need to protect habitat from land clearing, which is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity loss. Ballina Shire Council already has the lowest percentage of native vegetation coverage anywhere in the Northern Rivers (less than 20%). Resolving these issues in a way that is fair, balancing the needs and rights of landowners with the public interest to a healthy environment is key. 

Whatever happens, I am certain that the decisions we make in the coming months will be this Council’s biggest test of its commitment towards environmental protection and will leave a legacy for future generations.