We’ve left our dream home in the hills of the Tweed Valley after a five-year fight against a development project that we consider environmental lunacy.
We’re making the best of our enforced migration from one end of the Tweed Shire to the other – an easier and healthier lifestyle, more time to exercise, read, write and travel, and less battling weeds and the elements.
But our ordeal has been an object lesson in dealing with short-sighted local planning, uncaring state authorities and hidden commercial interests.
Back in 2002, after years moving from one Sydney rental to the next, we began planning our lives after full-time careers. For less than the price of a one-bedroom Sydney unit, we found a house on a few secluded acres in the beautiful Tweed Valley, overlooking canefields. To the north-east lay the Pacific, to the south-west Mount Warning and the caldera. There were wallabies and echidnas, frogmouth owls and kookaburras, a hillside of grass trees. A home for the rest of our lives.
It was five years before we could leave the Sydney jobs that paid the mortgage, but work began straight away. The southern slopes were sclerophyll rainforest, and Alex and his brother Jim cleared the toxic camphor laurels, giving native trees room to grow.
The north-facing slopes were covered with weeds that we dug out by hand, planting bird-attracting native trees and a substantial orchard of citrus, banana and fig trees. Locals were generous with plants and knowledge and we joined the Uki Garden Club. (We joined everything: the regional gallery, the museum, local clubs. I had the joy of singing with the Chillingham Voices community choir.)
Alex made it a big-hearted place, building a massive wooden deck and rock wall as entertainment areas. Through reafforestation, understorey planting and the creation of pathways, he made the western ridge into a sanctuary we called The Glade.
We planted hundreds of trees and renovated the house, first making guest rooms, then opening up the living and kitchen areas and adding a huge patio for convivial lunches. Alex put his heart into it, enlisting great local tradies who became our friends.
Directly below the property, bordering the canefields, was an area zoned to become the Tweed Shire Botanic Gardens. In 2003 the Council newsletter, Tweed Link, told us that plans for establishing the gardens were on track.
In 2008, not long after we’d moved in, Council announced a plan to convert an exhausted quarry on our eastern boundary into a garbage tip. We were incredulous. The old quarry was surrounded by floodwater every time the rains came. We took photographs, sent them to Council officers, wrote letters of protest and alerted the local media. How would it be possible to prevent leakage into the canefield irrigation system, and thence the Tweed River?
The multinational consultancy firm GHD was appointed to carry out an environmental assessment. They came to interview us in April 2009. We stated our objections – environmental damage first, then detriment to the value of our property. They’d note our concerns, they said. No, we replied – we’d submit them in writing. Others did the same, though there were few of us in the immediate area and one, a council worker, sold up that year, telling us the project was “a done deal”.
It was two and a half years before the GHD report was published. Basically it said the project was sound. It went up for public submissions. Again we wrote in, and got coverage in the local media.
But in December 2012 the fatal blow was delivered. Under Part 3A, the former Labor government’s “developer’s charter” – since abolished – the NSW Planning Department authorised Council to proceed with the landfill and with construction of four new quarries on our western boundary. Challenging this in the Land and Environment Court would cost money we didn’t have, with almost no chance of success.
The fine print of the determination revealed that matters were worse than we thought. We’d been told in an early meeting with Council officials that garbage would be compacted elsewhere and brought to the new tip site a couple of times a day. But the government decision gave permission for up to 48 trucks an hour.
The most extraordinary revelation was that the GHD report, which ran to hundreds of pages, had not included a flood impact assessment. It would have to be done, said the department – but it gave permission to proceed with Stage One anyway.
Local cane growers who have the most to lose from the environmental destruction of the flood plain have not uttered a single protest. Their apathy and complacency is disappointing.
And what of the proposed Botanic Gardens? The area is still zoned for that – but in 30 years’ time.
The neighbour who’d said there was “a done deal” had clearly been right. There are big interests in garbage disposal in the Tweed Valley, home of Solo Resources – and big private housing developments that will require road base and gravel from quarries.
With the value of our hilltop home plummeting, we reluctantly decided to open negotiations to sell to Council. They dealt with us decently. We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we covered our original outlay – financially, that is. The soul is a different matter.
Anyway, we’ve packed and left. We can’t tackle acreage a second time. So we’ve turned from tree changers into sea changers, and found a little house by the Tweed River, close to beaches.
On November 1 we handed over the keys to the old place. We were only ever its custodians, and losing it wasn’t like being dispossessed of land that your people have belonged to for generations. Nor was it like being forced from your home by foreign invasion or war and ending up on Manus Island.
We had a few precious years at our rural idyll, meeting great people, becoming part of the life of the valley, sharing memorable times with family and friends.
Our coolamons, grown from seed, are now five metres tall. The bush hibiscus will still unfold their delicate flowers in the mornings, and the red gums glow in the evening sun. When winter comes, I’ll think of the flocks of honey-eaters in the grevilleas, and in summer wonder if the mangoes are ripening. And when the floods come, ask what’s happening around that odious tip.
The new place is fine. We look out on lovely casuarinas and estuarine rainforest, and on walks along the river we still see Mount Warning.
From paradise lost, to tranquillity regained. It’s been quite an experience.