The Liberal candidate for Eden-Monaro, Fiona Kotvojs, urged her local council to push forward with a new rural land plan, despite numerous Rural Fire Service concerns that it did not “protect life, property and the environment”, documents seen by the Guardian show.
Kotvojs, who has waged a war against so-called “green tape”, called for Eurobodalla shire council, where she is a resident, to pass the plan that would have allowed new development in bushfire-prone areas.
The New South Wales Rural Fire Service had made repeated objections to the plan as far back as 2015 rejecting the council’s claim it had complied with a statutory objective to plan for bushfire hazards, warning the plan “does not achieve the primary objective to protect life, property and the environment”.
At an August 2018 meeting of the council, Kotvojs called for the plan to be passed without further conditions or delay. The plan was eventually approved in October 2019 by the NSW planning minister, Rob Stokes, with further changes to accommodate RFS concerns.
Kotvojs has come under scrutiny for her views on reducing fuel loads to prevent bushfires, climate change and religious freedom ahead of Saturday’s poll, in which she is vying to become the first government member to win an opposition seat in a byelection in 100 years.
In letters to the council, seen by Guardian Australia, the RFS warned in December 2015 that “areas of high conservation value should not be subjected to increased densities” without further consideration of bushfire protection.
It urged the council to apply “appropriate minimum lot sizes and commensurate environmental zoning”.
“Zoning [high conservation land] as environmental … may assist the community and landowners … to have realistic expectations of the development potential of land.”
Environmental overlays are an “effective and appropriate tool” in minimising conflicts over land use, the RFS said.
In July 2016, the RFS reiterated its concern that the plan permitted previously banned land uses on bushfire-prone rural land including health services, childcare, seniors housing and respite care. It warned the plan could create “unrealistic expectations” for development.
And in June 2018, the RFS complained that the council’s proposal “appears largely unchanged from previous versions and has not addressed specific concerns identified by the NSW RFS nor [had it] undertaken a strategic bushfire study”.
The RFS said it “should not proceed in its current form”.
But at the August 2018 council meeting, Kotvojs called for the plan to be progressed “without further delay to provide some certainty to farmers for their planning”.
Kotvojs argued there was no need for “environmental overlays” because council would still consider these concerns when assessing development applications and “if a landowner wants to remove vegetation from their property, they must still go through various approval processes before this can occur”.
“I would note on our own property – the complexity of this process has prevented us from harvesting timber from areas specifically purchased for agro-forestry and that have been previously harvested,” she said.
Kotvojs also accused other landowners of seeking to relitigate a council decision about whether to zone land E3 – the “environmental management” classification for land with special ecological, scientific, cultural or aesthetic attributes.
Kotvojs said in Dignams Creek there were “no studies to support application of this [E3] zone – most land has been logged at least once in my lifetime and much of the regrowth includes species not indigenous to the area”.
Kotvojs argued zoning land E3 would cause “significant detriment to landowners, generally without benefit”, and that minimum lot sizes of 1,000ha were “often not practicable”.
Kotvojs said the proposal for E3 zoning had caused “a high level of stress” among landowners, including one who died of cancer who “spent the previous four years concerned about what was going to happen to the future of the farm”.
Landowners needed certainty to make investments in alternate crops, such as her own decision to invest $30,000 per hectare to grow truffles, she said.
When speaking to her supporters via Facebook live, the Liberal candidate has listed cutting “green tape” as one of the ways governments can help Eden-Monaro recover from bushfires and Covid-19.
And in comments to Guardian Australia, Kotvojs has stressed the need for “faster development applications” and complained that native grassland laws “contradict in various areas” and the inconsistencies have “a perverse effect” on the environment.
Her intervention is not the first time she has been active on the issue. Kotvojs, who moved back to her parents’ farm in Dignams Creek in 2005, has in fact already been waging a 10-year war against “green tape” in the Eurobodalla shire.
In 2011 the council proposed a new local environmental plan, with parts of the land to be zoned E3 to protect the environment by requiring special development approval for dwellings, roads, economic uses such as bed and breakfasts and other structures like boat sheds.
Council documents detail Kotvojs’ numerous objections to the draft plan, as she lobbied for “farm forestry be able to continue regardless of the zone”, building entitlements to be retained and expanded to second detached dwellings, and more generous limits for industries and businesses conducted in homes.
The council summarised her objection that “land is zoned E3 that should not be”, as Kotvojs argued that rural land should have the less restrictive RU1 zoning “unless the landowner requests” another zoning – which it labelled a “statement of opinion”.
The council rejected “unsubstantiated” claims that properties would be devalued by E3 zoning, citing an independent assessment for Cessnock city council that concluded the zoning had “little impact” on land values.
“Opportunities for rural enterprises had not been restricted, just managed into areas more suitable,” it said.
But although the council initially pushed back against some landowners’ objections, the campaign to reduce “green tape” had success.
When the then NSW planning minister, Brad Hazzard, signed off on the environmental plan in 2012 he approved a version with E3 zones excised but maintained environmental overlays, which he said were “more of a guide to indicate that there may be some environmental issues that need consideration”.
Although he left room to reinsert E3 zones, the council voted to keep them out in 2013.
At the August 2018 council meeting, Kotvojs thanked the council for addressing concerns she said she had raised on behalf of 50 residents of Dignams Creek and 300 residents of the shire.
“It is easy to complain and most of us fail to recognise achievements that have been made,” she said, while acknowledging the group had omitted to make a formal submission after the council’s backdown.