For more than sixty years in Noosa, ‘People Power’ has been a constant and crucial player in the three-way game of push-and-shove between developers, politicians and conservationists.
Notable PP examples include:
- Public protestors stopping sand mining on Main Beach in the Fifties.
- Noosa Parks Association and others blocking a bid in the Sixties to run a road through Noosa Headland along with houses and commercial properties.
- Local residents taking legal action in the Seventies to prevent high-rise development in Hastings Street.
And let’s not forgot the mother of all PP battles – the 2010-2014 ‘Free Noosa’ campaign to claw back Noosa Council from the clutches of the amalgamated Sunshine Coast Council.
The People Power phenomenon was back in the news again last week when the proposal to develop a five-star hotel resort at Noosa Springs was rejected by councillors at the General Committee meeting on July 17 after a two-year stoush. The thumbs-down followed a clinical campaign by worried residents and a stern warning from Unity Water that the plan did not pass the whiff-and-sniff test due to its proximity to a sewage treatment plant, just 220 metres at the closest point.
But the final vote on the project that was due a few days later at the ‘ordinary’ meeting of Council on July 20 was deferred when the developer asked for a stop to the assessment of the application.
Golden Horse Australia, which owns the Noosa Springs Golf and Spa Resort, first lodged the $50m ‘Material Change of Use’ Application in June 2021 after what the Hong Kong-based company described as ‘extensive planning and consultation’.
Christmas ‘silly season’. It’s all about the timing.
As the ‘silly season’ approached In November 2021, a notice of intention to commence public notification of the 112-room hotel scheme was issued. The developers then staged a few community presentations to outline their vision for the new hotel to be set on an adjacent 3.8-hectare site.
Yet John Cochrane and many of his fellow Noosa Springs residents remained relatively unaware of the plan until less than a week before Noosa Council’s Public Notification Period closed on 21 December 2021. Just a few days before Christmas, he and other citizen crusaders were jolted into action when they realised the size of the boutique resort that would be built on their doorstep.
‘We were not against a hotel being built,’ Cochrane, an architect, says. ‘But the scale of the development seemed out of proportion to the location. To us, it was a case of high impact, low justification.’
Fellow resident Kim Petrovic was equally alarmed. ‘Whilst residents love living in this residential enclave because of the community spirit and peaceful, secure environment, we believed our quality of life would be significantly and adversely affected. It had the potential to cause adverse health issues,’ she says.
Cochrane submitted an immediate request to have the notification period extended, pointing out that the Christmas timing meant that many people were travelling interstate or abroad. This was denied by the applicant. Cochrane and other concerned residents quickly coalesced into a small action group. They had no name and no fighting fund, but they resolved to act swiftly.
With only three days before the end of the notification period, they had galvanised 430 Noosa Springs people into submitting letters to the Council objecting to the development. Twenty more submissions followed early in 2022.
‘This’, says John Cochrane, ‘illustrated the high level of engagement within the Noosa Springs community, and the concerns about the size of the project.’
Other individuals and organisations also weighed in with their own objections, including the company that developed Parkridge, plus Noosa Ratepayers Association and koala crusaders. The concerns cited included: building height, loss of scenic amenity, wildlife habitat destruction, and traffic impact.
Unlike the other people power protests mentioned earlier, the Noosa Springs residents did not take to the streets. They did not wave placards. They did not bang any drums. Instead, Cochrane says, the campaign mostly grew from ‘over the back garden fence chatting’.
The residents’ group kept track of the proposal through its various incarnations, met with planning officials, lobbied politicians, sent letters to the local newspaper, and even submitted counter proposals to the design and scale of the hotel using John Cochrane’s expertise as an architect.
‘We were not against a low-scale development but strongly opposed to the over-development depicted in the proposed plan,’ says Cochrane. ‘I even submitted an alternative design that reduced the number of rooms considerably and would have lessened the overall impact of the development but, I believe, increased the quality and appeal of the resort.’
While the architect was the visible spearhead of the protest campaign, other objectors kept a lower profile, partly because of a desire for peace and harmony which motivated their moving to Noosa Springs in the first place, and partly because the project manager is Philip Starkey whose family designed and developed the Noosa Springs complex before selling it to Golden Horse in 2014. The Starkeys remain liked and respected within the local community.
“The proposed development will attract high-spending visitors and represents one of the most significant tourism investments in the Noosa area for many years,” Mr Starkey said recently, while conceding that significant changes had been made to the hotel plans in the past year following public submissions and feedback from authorities. Those changes included a reduction from 112 rooms to 106 rooms, with no part of the hotel higher than three storeys. GH Australia also intended to plant new habitat trees for koalas and she-oak trees for glossy black cockatoos within the golf course.
The amended plan, already given the thumbs-up by the Noosa Planning Department, was presented to councillors at the Planning and Environment Committee meeting on July 11 this year. when they were treated to three last-gasp deputations from Cochrane and Petrovic, Unity Water executive Rhett Duncan (who urged the Council to reject the plan), and Golden Horse representative Ellen Guan who spoke about extra jobs and a focus on wellness.
Back to the drawing board?
With the elected Councillors’ opposition crystal clear after the July 17 General Committee meeting, the developers requested a halt to the process. Councillor Amelia Lorentson seemed to sum up the decision: while encouraging Golden Horse to resubmit a new plan for what she described as a “more suitable hotel”, she said that the current application did not meet community expectations and values, and conflicted with the Noosa plan.
‘It’s a no to a development that has the potential to expose ratepayers, Noosa Council and Unity water to financial and reputational risks,’ she added.
Meanwhile, another councillor was concerned that the plan would have adverse impacts on environmental values, and ecologically important areas. ‘There’s a long-standing principle of Council that we should not facilitate development applications that force us to significantly amend the Planning Scheme – which is the blueprint for the way our community and Council move forward together,’ Cr Brian Stockwell said. ‘This proposal, as it stands, simply doesn’t fit the values our community rightly expects its Council to stand by.’
Facing certain defeat, Golden Horse then asked for a ceasefire. A tactic that buys some time while it considers its options. These include: going to court and/or appealing to the state government to have the decision overridden; or, as Cr Lorentson suggested, submitting an amended plan with a smaller footprint that satisfies both community and Council concerns. Of course, the developer could simply hope that councillors can be persuaded to reverse what it has labelled an “unjustifiable” decision given that the Council’s own planners recommended the application.
Cochrane & Co’s quietly methodical campaign to preserve their peaceful lifestyle within the Noosa Springs sanctuary has succeeded so far. But the battle is not over yet. People Power will now have to wait until the smoke clears before it can claim another triumph.
Disclosure: the writer is a member of Noosa Springs Golf Club but does not live on the estate. He has, he says, ‘no skin in the game’.