Fight against review of Warnervale airport grows

27th January 2020

Aviation industry expert and Survivor hopeful Peter Fiegehen is part of a NSW Government review of the Warnervale Airport (Restrictions) Act only two years after a previous government review blocked Central Coast Council plans to develop a regional airport at Warnervale.

The new review, announced in October, was prompted by Central Coast Aero Club lobbying the NSW Government after an illegal former Wyong Council extension of the Warnervale airstrip into a wetland in 2015 triggered the Act. It restricted the club to 88 flight movements per day from its Warnervale airstrip base.

Documents obtained under freedom of information show the airstrip's daily flight movement restrictions were breached 1439 times between April, 2017 and June, 2019, prompting complaints to the council and Department of Planning.

The new review will look at the flight restrictions and whether a planning instrument, rather than a piece of legislation, is more appropriate for the Warnervale site.

But Wyong MP David Harris has raised concerns with Planning Minister Rob Stokes about removing the Act and reviving a push within sections of Central Coast Council for a regional airport at Warnervale, with consequences for Lake Macquarie and the Hunter.

It comes after years of controversy about millions of dollars spent on Wyong Council plans for a regional airport at three different sites before it merged with Gosford to form Central Coast Council in 2016.

A 2017 masterplan included a $638 million proposal for an aviation hub and 1800 metre runway at Warnervale. It estimated 40 daily B737 jets could leave the site by 2030 and fly over nearly 11,000 Central Coast homes and another 7500 in Lake Macquarie.

While airport backers have claimed a Central Coast regional airport would generate hundreds, or thousands, of jobs, a Deloitte Access Economics report found the 1800 metre runway and aviation hub scenario would increase regional employment by 116 jobs per year.

The DAE report also slashed claims of up to 950 jobs flowing from rented hanger space at a Warnervale aviation hub, noting that "In fact, the economic modelling indicates that net employment will be closer to 150".

Wyong Council, and the merged Central Coast Council, have pursued a regional airport plan despite an Australian Government Department of Infrastructure and Transport report finding Central Coast residents fly less per capita than any other region in an area stretching from the Hunter to the Illawarra and ACT.

It is also despite Newcastle Airport telling the NSW Government in 2016 that it "strongly identifies the Central Coast as being within its core catchment", in a submission to a draft Central Coast regional plan that included a regional airport.

Newcastle Airport acknowledged the need for "carefully planned housing supply" in the Central Coast region and warned that "this needs to take into consideration current and future flight paths that do not introduce conflict in respect to noise contours".

In the first review of the Warnervale Airport (Restrictions) Act in 2016 Lake Macquarie City Council strongly objected to Wyong Council's push for the Act to be removed, and said the airstrip's flight path "travels directly over a recently rezoned urban release area at Wyee".

Lake Macquarie Council sought even stronger provisions within the Act to require "a more comprehensive consultation process based on long-term strategic planning".

Lake Macquarie MP Greg Piper said a Central Coast regional airport "just doesn't make sense to me" because of the proximity of Newcastle and Sydney airports and thousands of nearby residences.

Mr Harris said the new review was about how the Act affected current operations at Warnervale airstrip but it was legitimate to raise questions about Central Coast regional airport plans because of the controversial history, the millions of dollars already spent, and the Act currently blocked the council from pursuing the proposal.

A regional airport at Warnervale is included in a new Central Coast economic plan circulated to MPs this week, Mr Harris said.

"Clearly council staff still see it as a catalyst for employment, but we have about 65,000 homes within 7.5 kilometres of the airstrip who need the independent protection they get from retaining the Act," Mr Harris said.

"It's currently a landing strip and not an airport. Changing it to an airport is a big step."

In a speech to NSW Parliament in 2017 Mr Harris questioned the airstrip's cost to ratepayers over many years. It "lost $635,000 last year, $265,000 in 2014-15", he said.

"One wonders why, when council is closing preschools and looking at closing pools, it is trying to maintain this asset."

A 2013 report commissioned by Wyong Council found it received $5000 income from "a property worth $12.75 million" which represented "a poor return on investment". The report rated development of a regional airport as the worst option for the council and ratepayers.

In a speech to Parliament in August, 2019 Mr Harris said there was "a lot of misinformation" about the Central Coast airport proposal, but the Act is in place "to protect the community".

Last week Mr Harris, who is Opposition spokesperson for regional transport, said he was "yet to find a regional airport that's making money".

"They all need subsidies. People have to decide if they want their rate money to subsidise an airport or pay for roads and drains and other services," he said.

Central Coast Aero Club has a lease at Warnervale until August, 2021. Documents filed with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission in June, 2018 showed it had 190 ordinary flying members, 15 social members and 11 junior members.

Employee benefits expenses rose from $522,689 in 2017 to $653,482 in 2018.

Under a deed of agreement Central Coast Council has the right to purchase the aero club's 2.25 hectares at the Warnervale airstrip site until August, 2021 to develop the area. But the council must relocate or replace the club's existing buildings to "a similar sized parcel of land".

Mr Fiegehen said he was unable to comment on the review, but confirmed his role as a reviewer and that he appeared on SurvivorAustralia in 2016. He was forced to leave the show in Samoa because of a stomach bug.

Planning Minister Rob Stokes appointed University of Technology Sydney Institute for Public Policy and Governance associate Abigail Goldberg as lead reviewer, supported by Mr Fiegehen.

The review will accept submissions until February 28. A public forum for verbal submissions will be held on that day. A final report is expected in late April.

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