Farmer’s fury at ignored bushfire ‘death trap’ call
Farmers warned Premier Gladys Berejiklian south coast towns were a bushfire "death trap" 18 months ago because dangerous fuel loads could not be cleared without local government approval - but the state did nothing about it as it was a council issue.
Bega Valley Shire Farmers and Land Owners Group member Wayne Doyle wrote to Ms Berejiklian in April 2018 following the Tathra fires, saying a decision to slap environmental zonings on farmland by the local council posed a safety risk to other towns, including Eden - one of the worst hit communities - and Merimbula.
"We do not want to see people have to go through what the Tathra residents have had to experience in the recent fire," the 2018 letter said.
"At the height of the bushfire danger period the population of these towns more than doubles with tourists, who will take responsibility for this potential death trap?"
The NSW Planning Department replied to Mr Doyle saying they would look at the issue but he never heard further.
In 2013 parts of the south coast, including some land used for agriculture, were rezoned as "E2" or "E3" environmental areas in the Bega Valley Shire council's Local Environment Plan, which was signed off by the state government.
Under the Plan, the NSW Rural Fire Service can conduct hazard reduction burns anywhere, but agricultural landowners with environmentally zoned properties must lodge an application first. Illegal land clearing offences carry fines of up to $500,000 in the Land and Environment Court, but an agriculture expert said it was unusual for landowners to be fined more than $100,000.
Similar zoning practices were scrapped on the NSW far north coast in 2016 by then Planning Minister Rob Stokes after a review found the system was not appropriate for helping councils zone farmland.
No changes were made on the south coast.
Mr Doyle's 110ha cattle farm near Eden was hit by fire last week. "I have managed to save the shed and the house, but I lost about 3km of fencing and a fair bit of pasture land," he said.
According to the council as of 2017 just 0.9 per cent of the Shire was classed as "E2" for environmental protection and 4.5 per cent as "E3" for environmental management.
Concerns have also been raised about the cost of clearing land with property owner Joshua Shoobridge telling The Daily Telegraph he'd been advised by council it was $75 to apply to remove each tree on his rural Tathra acreage.
According to the schedule of fees published on the Bega Valley Shire Council's website, it costs $75 for up to five trees and an assessment of the applicant's flora and fauna costs $285.
Mr Shoobridge ran as a candidate in last year's state election as a candidate for the Australian Conservatives on the issue of red tape prohibiting land clearing.
NSW Farmers' Conservation and Resource Management Committee chair Bronwyn Petrie said the state government now needed to crack down on councils placing restrictions on agricultural land.
A government spokeswoman asked about the zoning issue and Mr Doyle's letter said: "Councils are responsible for determining the zoning of their land in consultation with their local community."