Response to Canberra Times article: Conservationists concerned about bushfire risk at future Ginninderry development

On April 10th 2019 the Canberra Times published an article under the headline: “Conservationists concerned about bushfire risk at future Ginninderry development”.

Some of the material in the article may be open to misinterpretation; a commentary prepared for the Ginninderry project is set out below.

The article opens with the statement: “Sections of the future cross-border Ginninderry development could expose the residents to increased bushfire risk and force developers to expand a bushfire buffer zone into Ginninderra Falls, conservationists have warned.”

An important planning principle for the Ginninderry project has been the requirement to ensure that the conservation area is not and will never be affected by the need for fire management measures put in place in response to the adjoining urban area. The conservation corridor is focused on the preservation of natural and cultural heritage values. The only fire management actions taken in the conservation corridor will be those related to the needs of the corridor itself.

Conversely, all fire management measures necessary for the protection of the urban area will be implemented within the urban area. This will include “asset protection zones” or buffers between the bush and housing. The asset protection requirements are prescribed by the relevant Government agencies – Emergency Services in the ACT and the Rural Fire Service in NSW. These agencies have a breadth and depth of experience in fire management that is unparalleled. They are also pro-active in ensuring that they bring the latest knowledge to their task through collaborations with external experts, including the CSIRO who have a world-wide reputation for excellence in bushfire research.

It is wrong to imply that the developers could be “forced” to take some sort of action. The Ginninderry developers always act in accord with the requirements of the relevant expert Government agencies, as is the case here.

The article quotes Ms Robyn Coghlan, President of the Ginninderra Falls Association on the above matter. Ms Coghlan refers to the documents on the development recently released for public consultation and makes various comments regarding the apparent risk to residents.

Firstly, whilst these documents have recently been placed on public exhibition they have been available to Ms Coghlan and her organisation for several years and the matters that she is now raising have been raised in the past. These matters, including an expert report commissioned by the Ginninderra Falls Association on this very topic (Risk Implications of Dynamic Fire Propagation, A case study of the Ginninderry region, Preliminary Report, June 2017, Prepared for: Ginninderra Falls Association, Jason J. Sharples, University of New South Wales Canberra) were referred to both the expert bushfire consultants commissioned by Ginninderry (Ecological) and to ACT Emergency Services and the NSW Rural Fire Service. The fire management measures at Parkwood and throughout Ginninderry have been formulated in accord with the standards set by these agencies; in setting their requirements the agencies took into account material presented by the Ginninderra Falls association.

This is fully explained in the bushfire report that forms part of the set of Documents on public exhibition: Ecological Pty Ltd, The West Belconnen Project Bushfire Management Strategy, 2014.

This is an example of a sound planning process. Legitimate public concerns, in this case regarding bushfire risk, have been raised at an early stage in the process and input to the decision makers – in this case ACT Emergency Services and the NSW RFS. The public concerns were fully taken into account by the decision makers in their prescriptions for the fire management requirements at Ginninderry.

Ms Coghlan, who would no doubt agree that she personally is not an expert in this field, does not seem to accept the outcome. That is her prerogative but it does not make her correct in her views. From a developer perspective, Ginninderry is required to abide by the government agency requirements and it is doing so in full.

Ms Coghlan has questioned “should housing be the priority over the environment”

Unfortunately this is not a “one or the other” argument. The Ginninderry project has necessarily taken a ‘triple bottom line” approach to the planning of the site, recognising the need for environmental, social and economic objectives to be addressed concurrently. The demand for affordable housing in the ACT region is very real and sites able to accommodate housing are scarce. The balance that has been struck at Ginninderry as been to include all of the land determined by thorough scientific research as having conservation value to the conservation reserve (596 ha). The balance, about 800 ha, which is largely farmland and includes in NSW A large area of quarry, is intended for urban development.

The planning process involved, as a first step, the identification and reservation of the conservation corridor; it was only after that was finalised that planning for the urban area commenced. Housing certainly does not have a piority in the planning process.

Ms Coghlan also raised concerns about what effect the water run off from the development and future residents would have on the falls and the Murrumbidgee River, which feeds the Murray-Darling Basin.

Firstly it should be noted that Ginninderra Falls is at the lower extremity of Ginninderra Creek, which in turn, has an almost entirely urbanised catchment as it flows from its headwaters in Gungahlin through Belconnen to meet the Murrumbidgee below the Falls. Even so the creek is relatively “clean” due to the stormwater management practices implemented in urban Canberra over time. Stormwater management (Water sensitive urban design or WSUD) requirements are now very strict and will be applied throughout Ginninderry. A key reference is:

West Belconnen: A Water sensitive Community, Water sensitive Urban Design, Aecom 2014, available here.

The water quality of runoff that exits the Ginninderry site will be of a very high standard and will not impact on the quality of the existing water in the Murrumbidgee or Ginninderra Creek.

Ms Coghlan doubted the likelihood of the stormwater management systems being maintained, she is quoted as saying: “maintenance costs money” and she felt the government wasn’t willing to spend money on maintenance… “They prefer to put money into big projects,”

Whether or not the Government accepts its responsibilities for the management of public resources is of course a matter for Government and beyond the control of Ginninderry. Ginninderry has no doubt that, as has happened throughout the development of Canberra and all Australian cities and towns, the management of urban infrastructure will be undertaken appropriately. On the question of cost, it should be noted that as the city grows, for example with the Ginninderry project, so does the rate revenue base providing funds to manage the resources, including water management resources, needed for the growing population.

The article quotes Mr David Maxwell as saying: “maintenance could be passed to the Ginninderry Conservation Trust” and goes on to discuss this subject more generally

It is important to understand here that Mr Maxwell did not intend to imply that this could occur in the event of some sort of failure in the management of the WSUD system. No such failure is contemplated or in any way likely. The possibility of taking on the management of the WSUD ponds has been discussed because they have significant habitat value, and this aligns with the Conservation Trust objectives and expertise, but this would only be on a fee-for-service basis as a potential additional income stream for the trust.

Ms Coghlan quoted as saying: “…one upside of the Ginninderry development was it would start to allow public access to the Ginninderra Falls as it had been closed to the public for decades”.

This comment is noted and it is the intent of the Ginninderry project to place the Falls and Gorge within the conservation corridor which would all be open for public access. In the absence of the Ginninderry project it is doubtful whether this would be possible.