The proposed removal of a registered tree in Manuka will set a precedent that puts every other registered tree in the ACT at risk, according to the Kingston Barton Residents Group.
The large London plane tree in question is on Franklin Street on the old post office site and its removal is part of the Liangis family’s proposed hotel development on the prime Section 96 that also contains the Capitol Theatre.
The Planning and Land Authority approved the development, subject to certain conditions, on 10 October, including the deregistering of the tree, on the advice of the Conservator of Flora and Fauna, Ian Walker, who is still to make a decision.
The KBRG objected to the development not only because of the threat to the tree but over the architectural quality of the proposal, and if it wins final approval the residents’ group will be heading to the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal with an appeal.
KBRG member Richard Johnston – a planner and architect who retired from ACTPLA in 2006, says the Manuka proposal highlights the way ACTPLA can ignore advice and use technicalities to wave developments through.
In March, a key advisory panel, the (Interim) National Capital Design Review Panel – consisting of the ACT Government Architect, the Chief Planner of the NCA, a former head of ACTPLA and of the NCA, and two other senior design experts – recommended the proposal be revised as its current form ‘is not considered to meet key provisions set out in the Manuka Circle Development Control Plan or the aspirations for high-quality architectural response in this prominent location’.
It also requested that any revision of the proposal considers retention of the Registered tree, which is to make way for a substation on the site.
But this non-binding advice, provided to the KBRG just after public consultation closed on 7 December, was rejected and the DA proceeded.
The Liangis family had tried several times to have the tree deregistered but a recent legislative change allows anyone to propose that the registration of a tree be cancelled, and on 15 November Mr Walker advised KBRG that another application had been received as part of the DA.
This time it came with advice from Chief Planner Ben Ponton that the Conservator may cancel the registration of a tree if, ‘on advice from the ACT Planning and Land Authority, the registration of the tree will significantly compromise the broader strategic planning objectives of the Territory Plan’.
“At this stage, I consider that the proposal may satisfy that cancellation criteria,” the Conservator said, as this was precisely the advice from ACTPLA.
Mr Ponton told Mr Walker that retaining the tree would compromise the Territory’s ability to deliver a key strategic project for Canberra, and that it would prevent the site being developed, affect the viability of the project and jeopardise the design outcome and quality of a future redevelopment of the site.
He also said a site inspection had revealed the tree was causing substantial damage to services and possibly the adjoining Capitol Theatre building.
Mr Johnston said this was the first time that a proposal had been dealt with to cancel the registration of a tree, and put every other significant tree in the path of development at risk, despite the importance placed on green-proofing the city against the heat island effect and climate change in the just-released Planning Strategy.
He said the site itself was subject to special conditions in the National Capital Plan because of its location on Canberra Avenue and KBRG backed the contention of the Panel that the proposal was not up to scratch.
“We just can’t understand why ACTPLA did not really give any obvious weight to the recommendations of that high-level Panel,” he said.
Mr Johnston said the decaying state of the site meant some would prefer something happening there rather than the saga drag on.
“But in the light of the recommendations of the Design Review Panel we don’t think it’s good enough that ACTPLA just ticks it off and waves it through because most people agree it’s not a particularly high-quality development proposal,” he said.
“Seems to me, in this one anyway, the planning authority has taken the view that it doesn’t need to go beyond the things that it must consider. It doesn’t need to consider the broader issues, particularly to do with the National Capital Plan.”
Mr Ponton said in a statement that advice from the Chief Planner of the NCA to the proponent for the development, supporting the location for a proposed substation where the Registered Tree is currently located, was considered.
“The NCA advice was provided by the proponent at the time when the DA was lodged. The provisions of the National Capital Plan, associated Development Control Plan and the Territory Plan were also considered,” he said.
He said the planning authority strongly regarded the Panel’s advice but it was not a regulatory body or a decision maker for development approvals, nor the cancellation of registration of trees.
“It is important to understand the role of the Panel, versus the role of the independent planning and land authority, the latter being responsible for making decisions, having considered all relevant input,” he said.
“Advice from the Panel has resulted in significant changes to several other development applications prior to lodgement and while under assessment.”
Mr Ponton said that proposed legislative changes, following formal establishment of the Panel, would strengthen its role.