Warnervale Airport (Restrictions) Repeal Bill 2020

14th October 2020

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) (11:38:30): I note the strong interest in the Warnervale Airport (Restrictions) Repeal Bill 2020 from members from the areas affected. The member for Terrigal has just spoken, the member for Wyong led for the Opposition and the member for Gosford will also be speaking in this debate. I note that the Hon. Taylor Martin is present at the moment. We have all had a significant amount of discussion with our communities about this over many years.

I raise a number of things from the outset. Warnervale Airport is located in the Wyong electorate, which neighbours my electorate to the south. I therefore have had a long association with the history of the airport, along with the somewhat grandiose and questionable plans proposed over the years by what was then the Wyong Shire Council, Wyong Council, and now Central Coast Council. It should be noted what while the airport is not in my electorate, the flight path or proposed flight path of a number of those incarnations is over parts of my electorate, including Wyee in particular.

From 2007 to 2011 my electorate included a significant area of the Wyong Council area, the rural areas of Dooralong, Yarramalong Valley and Kulnura. Residents of these areas had significant concerns about the potential impact of proposed increases in the usage and types of usage of the Warnervale Airport on the amenity of those areas. In my time as Lake Macquarie Mayor particularly I was contacted by many frustrated residents of Wyong shire who felt they had been consistently ignored by their own council, which was hell-bent on pushing ahead with large airport plans adjacent to their residential area. I will come back to some of those points. I will first comment on a number of elements contained in the bill.

As the Minister and several previous speakers have pointed out, the bill will lift the cap on aircraft movements in and out of Warnervale immediately. The cap of 88 movements per day exists for one reason only. In 2015 Wyong Council illegally extended the length of the runway, which it owns. It subsequently triggered the cap and other aspects of the restrictions Act, which was passed with good reason in 1994. I note that in his reading speech the Minister referred to the extension as having the "unwitting effect" of triggering the cap, thus creating "acute problems" for the operations of the Central Coast Aero Club. As a former pilot—now non-active—I appreciate the concerns for the Central Coast Aero Club. Over the years I have dealt with the club in its aspirations to manage the growth and demands of the club, including when the club was considering taking over opportunities at Belmont Airport with a contra deal with Mirvac.

I am very well aware of the complexities created by the Central Coast Aero Club and I am sympathetic to the club. Let there be no mistake: Wyong Council illegally extended the runway so that any subsequent problems being experienced by the aero club or the aerodrome itself were caused by the illegal actions of Wyong Council, with Doug Eaton as mayor and Mike Whittaker as general manager. On that basis alone it could be argued that the council should have been ordered to dig up the illegal extension, but sadly that would have achieved nothing because the Act, and therefore the cap, had been triggered. There was no way of retrospectively putting things back the way they were.

In another of the fanciful future airport plans proposed by the then Wyong Council, it released a plan showing a vast expansion of runways and associated industry parks spread out well beyond the Wyong shire boundaries, even into Lake Macquarie City Council area. Extraordinarily, a local environmental plan amendment to facilitate a runway in the Buttonderry area was prepared and submitted to the Department of Planning without reference to Lake Macquarie City Council. It was a council of considerable dysfunction, led by Mayor Eaton, who also wasted tens of millions of his ratepayer's dollars on an ill-fated plan to build a Chinese theme park near the proposed airport. It was a display of shameless, partisan interests that were alive in Wyong Council at the time

This is the reason that many people in the Wyong area—certainly many more in the southern parts of Lake Macquarie—have such a strong level of mistrust in the Central Coast Council, in particular the plans it has had over the years for Warnervale Airport through the Wyong Council. It should not be forgotten that the areas around the existing aerodrome contain thousands of new homes. These vast sprawls of new housing—all approved by the very same Wyong Council—are effectively right next door to the aerodrome. The people living there have every right to be suspicious of the council and suspicious of any plans to change the laws that they believe were put in place to protect them from the massive expansion of the airport.

As the Minister has also indicated, the airport's future and the future of the original restrictions Act were independently reviewed in 2019 by Abigail Goldberg and Peter Fiegehen. Mr Fiegehen was put forward as a representative of the council. I will accept the Minister's assurance that the review process was independent, but I understand the community concerns that having a council employee on the two-member review team does not inspire confidence in the independence of the process. That is not to say that Mr Fiegehen did not approach and execute the task absolutely professionally, but perhaps it was not the best look.

I also note that the bill allows for a gradual repeal over two years to allow the new Central Coast Council the opportunity to develop a business plan and master plan for the existing aerodrome. In other words, it will provide time for the new council to put its cards on the table and tell the community what its plans for Warnervale actually are. I note that the member for Wyong has indicated that an amendment will be brought forward that may extend that by two years. I understand also that the Government may accede to that, and that is a supportable outcome. I have already expressed concern about what happens if the council fails to meet that deadline. Only this week it emerged that the amalgamated Central Coast Council has reported a budget deficit of $89 million—$46 million worse than the $41 million deficit it was predicting in March. I cannot say that news fills me with confidence about the council's ability to meet its challenges. However, the Minister has assured me that if the two?year, perhaps three-year, deadline is not met, a contingency is assured and the future operations of the aerodrome would be governed by the new State Environmental Planning Policy. I ask the Minister to address that issue in his reply.

The Minister was absolutely right about several things relating to the Warnervale Airport, and the residents and ratepayers, who understandably have had a gutful of the confusion, the dodgy plans, the illegal runway extensions and the unresolved mess that the airport issue had generated over the past 30 years. They obviously deserve better. For that reason I support the bill. As I said earlier, there is no way of going back to the way things were before Wyong Council's actions triggered the restrictions Act and the cap on flight movements. Legal barriers are now in play that impact on the safety of the airport and its financial capacity, and on operational and governance issues. The only way forward is to reset the bar and manage the site properly, just as every other small regional aerodrome is managed throughout the State.

The bill will require the new council to put its plans on the table. It will require extensive community consultation along that road. Those plans will be governed by the limitations of the site and the likely impacts on the surrounding suburbs. At the very least it will provide a clear framework for future operations and solve some of the immediate problems that are hampering the safe operation of the aerodrome. The council now has an opportunity to win back the trust of those in the community who still feel betrayed by the previous council and of those who just want the issue resolved so they can get on with their lives.

I also hope it will provide some comfort to those neighbouring residents who still fear a major airport is about to be forced upon them over their back fences and that they will now get a say in future plans for the area. I further hope it provides a way forward for the recreational pilots and others at the Central Coast Aero Club who have also been victims of the circumstances of the council's dysfunction. It has taken a long time. It has been a circuitous route to get here, but I believe we have a much better outcome. I acknowledge the Government for its efforts in preparing the bill. I also acknowledge those who drafted the bill and those who have been involved in the consultation to get us to this point. Let us hope that this works out for the community of the Central Coast.

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