The development of up to 6500 homes in West Belconnen was confirmed on Friday by ACT Planning Minister Mick Gentleman, stretches across the territory's border into NSW. The approval is a win for developers, but does raise questions about the future of one of the territory's most spectacular natural wonders, Ginninderra Falls.
The plan includes a 360-hectare nature reserve along the Murrumbidgee River and the possibility of another 220-hectare conservation corridor being developed in NSW immediately adjacent to the territory's border.
These buffers might afford protection to the falls, but it would be preferable for the area to be covered by a national park. This would seem to be the best way to preserve the area for future generations.
The Ginninderra Falls Association has previously expressed its concerns the greenfield proposal for the new outer Belconnen suburb, Parkwood, will come too close to the Ginninderra Gorge and its falls. It believes the development will come within 100 metres of the falls and will be too close to the creek corridor to safeguard wildlife, including the vulnerable pink-tailed worm lizards.
However, the proponent, the Riverview Group, is aware of areas of ecological significance and has suggested a conservation trust, drawing on multimillion-dollar contributions from the ACT government and NSW lands sales, to manage the river corridor. This could be a good vehicle for interim protection.
There is some hope that soon Canberrans and interstate visitors will again be able to access the spectacular falls. They are on private land and were closed to the public in 2004. Developers have previously said rezoning the bushland straddling the ACT and the NSW border for 30,000 people would reopen two falls to the public. This remains to be seen, and depends on arrangements with the owners of the land.
The private property adjoining the falls is the only practical way in and out for intending visitors. For a time, the owners promoted the attraction for tourists. Up to 30,000 people went through the private property each year to visit the falls until public liability insurance coverage was denied in 2004 and the family decided to block public access. However, people continued to arrive, uninvited and unwanted. They threatened the owners when asked to leave but rudely left their rubbish. If the falls are to be reopened to public access, these issues will still need to be resolved.
The government's announcement brings these issues into stark focus. More residents in west Belconnen will create jobs in the area for small businesses and boost the town centre. However, the lack of progress over a national park in the area is disappointing. The creeks and rivers must be protected for their intrinsic value and because they flow into the Murrumbidgee River.
Surely a mature jurisdiction like the ACT can negotiate a way to simultaneously protect the falls, allow access for tourists and protect the owners of the land from intrusion on their privacy? As the situation stands, it is a shame there is no guarantee of long-term protection or access, to one of the territory's few natural wonders.
As the development proceeds, there will also have to be discussion on the best option to deliver services from the ACT into the NSW portion of the subdivision. The future residents will be much more dependent on the ACT for services than, for example, people living on another fringe of Canberra, in Jerrabomberra.