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Hawkesbury Council Chaos: Tallowood Project Faces Ministerial Review

Nov 23, 2023

Hawkesbury City Council and the property development activities of local realtor Matthew Bennett were thrown into chaos on Tuesday night. The majority of councillors chose not to vote on changes to planning rules designed to benefit the controversial Tallowood project at Vincent’s Road Kurrajong, citing conflicts. 

The shock outcome appeared to catch Mayor Sarah McMahon and Crs. Patrick Conolly and Barry Calvert off guard.

For varying reasons, six of councillors recused themselves from voting and another was ill and not in attendance. A minimum of seven councillors is required for any vote to proceed. 

Cr. Conolly (picture left in the checked shirt)  was forced to return after leaving the chamber prematurely.

Under NSW local government rules, with the lack of any council opinion, changing planning rules will now be examined by the Minister for Local Government. The final decision rests with the Minister for Planning. In the meantime the Tallowood development can’t be subdivided. The episode comes at a time where the Minns government is once more taking a hard look at the relationships between developers and councillors across the state. 

Tuesday night’s vote was being pushed through after Bennett failed to get permission from the Land and Environment Court last year to sub-divide the large “Lot 6” of his Tallowood development. At present he has permission to develop the Lot – but not to subdivide into blocks. A subdivision would mean that the benefactors of the development – ostensibly Bennett’s mother Pamela, 86,  and mysterious backer Steve Guo-Ting He – would reap substantially more for each of the 19 dwellings planned that they would in a strata-title arrangement.

”The Court noted that the proposed subdivision would not amount to an enlargement, expansion or intensification of the existing use, but would merely reflect a change in title, and for that reason, also could not proceed in reliance on existing use rights,”’ an analysis of the LEC decision by BAL Lawyers said. Local residents have opposed the development.

Coming into the meeting, Bennett had told existing residents that he was confident that he had the requisite votes to pass the motion. If the motion had passed, it would be sent to the NSW Planning Panel with a recommendation for approval. 

Three Liberal councillors have continued to recuse themselves from votes concerning Bennett’s developments: his domestic partner Mayor McMahon as well as Crs. Connolly and Veigel. It is not known whether the two male councillors have any financial relationship with Bennett as McMahon does, although they declared their interest in the motion as non-pecuniary. Cr. Mary Lyons Buckett has also traditionally recused herself given the site is in the Kurrajong-Kurmond investigation area and she lives in the area. Cr Lyons-Buckett also said she still has outstanding reviews related to an issue about that area.

Last night Cr Nathan Zamprogno recused himself due to an ongoing and unresolved – but unnamed issue. Cr. Danielle Wheeler recused herself saying due to a strong personal relationship, she could not be unbiased. Cr Wheeler along with other councillors including Crs Zampgrono and Lyons-Buckett, has long battled the controversial Rural Land Clearing Code adopted by council that Bennett has used to clear properties he is developing. Some of the land is believed to be the habitat of koalas and other endangered wildlife, according to wildlife group WIRES.

As well, Cr Shane Djuric was absent due to illness leaving only five councillors present and able to vote, short of the majority of seven of the 12 councillors needed for a vote.

Cr McMahon appeared to be in shock at the turn of events and Cr Conolly called for a 15 minute recess due to confusion as to what would happen next.

When the reduced five person council resumed under the chair of Deputy Mayor Barry Calvert, 

HCC General Manager Elizabeth Richardon said that the council now needed to “forward the planning proposal effectively without the opinion from councillors by December 4.

What we can do, in seeking advice from both the Office of Local Government and the Department of Planning, is to seek approval from the Minister for Local Government, for councillors to deal with this matter,” she said. “Should the Department of Planning want or be willing to permit councils to consider the matter further? So, with that councillors, I think we draw the matter to a close, there is no resolution of the council.”

HCC was contacted for comment but offered none before deadline.

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