The owner of the Capitol Theatre building in Manuka has launched a blistering attack on the ACT Conservator for Flora and Fauna, calling on him to resign over his decision to enforce the protection of a registered tree that is holding up a major hotel development on the site.
John Liangis says the London plane tree, which has grown up in the easement between two buildings on Franklin Street, should never have been registered in 2012 and is now not only blocking the hotel plans but any work on the site, including repairs or maintenance.
The Liangis family has had plans for the site for years, eventually lodging a development application in June last year and having it approved in October subject to certain conditions, including the deregistering of the tree, which appears to have not been planted but sprouted from a former street tree.
But Conservator for Flora and Fauna, Ian Walker rejected the family’s bid to strip the tree of its protected status, despite the Chief Planner Ben Ponton supporting the application, in a decision widely regarded as sending a message to developers.
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The decision has infuriated the Liangis family, and now Inner South businesses have thrown their weight behind the hotel proposal, sending a letter to Planning Minister Mick Gentleman calling on the Government to reverse Mr Walker’s decision.
They fear that Manuka, already hurting, will deteriorate and lose further business.
Mr Liangis, who is in the process of appealing to the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal, said Mr Walker had ignored a mountain of documented evidence from engineers, arborists, landscape architects, and town planners about the damage the tree is doing.
He said the tree’s roots had spread throughout the entire block and into the sewer, destroying the pipes, and it was cracking the wall of the cinema.
“It’s been growing in an easement quite vigorously, because it’s been feeding off raw sewage for most of its life,” he said.
“How can it be part of the streetscape when it’s sandwiched between two buildings?”
Mr Liangis said the actual street trees nearby were stunted because the plane tree, which was big for its age, took all their nutrition and they cannot get enough sunlight under its large canopy.
“When the tree goes, those trees will flourish and create that beautiful streetscape,” he said.
He said Mr Walker’s decision had made a mockery of the Tree Register.
“He should resign. Trees matter but so do people. They can’t use the Register to destroy people’s lives. The people of Canberra have lost confidence in the Office of the Conservator,” Mr Liangis said.
He said the hotel proposal could not incorporate the tree into its design, saying the block was too small.
“It’s impossible. The canopy alone almost covers the entire block. Its root system stretches out well into Canberra Avenue. So any idea that a design could be built around that tree is just nonsense,” he said.
Mr Liangis said two award-winning architectural firms had looked at it and were unanimous that the tree could not remain on that block.
He said the family had offered to plant trees anywhere the Government wanted as an offset.
Eighty-one businesses in Manuka, Kingston and Deakin have signed the letter to the Minister and Members of the Legislative Assembly for Kurrajong.
The letter says the tree is holding up the revitalisation of Manuka Group Centre and the creation of hundreds of jobs, adding tens of millions of dollars to the local economy.
The hotel would bring tens of thousands of hotel guests each year, most of whom would be serviced by Manuka and Kingston businesses, it says.
“The proposed development is both vibrant and classical in design; as such, it will bring patrons and life to a side of Manuka that has typically been obscure and quiet,” the letter says.
John-Paul Romano from Italian Brothers Fine Foods in Manuka said businesses feared Manuka would end up like the Curtin shops where a planning row left one side of the centre abandoned.
“Does it become a Curtin-style stoush where the buildings get hoarded up, graffitied and vandalised and further detracts from Manuka?” he said.
The Kingston Barton Residents Group supports the tree’s continued protected status.