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Historic Fine Following Unauthorised Land Clearing

May 29, 2024

A landmark decision by the NSW Land and Environment Court has resulted in a $135,000 fine for a landowner who illegally cleared over five hectares of native vegetation in Canyonleigh, located in the Southern Highlands. This case highlights the contrasting approaches to land clearing regulations between the Southern Highlands and the Hawkesbury region.

The court heard that the landowner conducted the clearing in two stages between July 2021 and August 2022, despite being served with a Development Control Order by the Wingecarribee Shire Council in August 2021 and a Stop Work Order by the Department of Planning and Environment in April 2022. The unauthorised clearing violated section 60N of the Local Land Services Act 2013.

The cleared area included trees more than 200 years old and 54 species of native flora, providing crucial habitat for endangered species like the Koala, the vulnerable Gang Gang Cockatoo, and the Yellow-Bellied Glider. Chief Justice Preston noted the clearing had significantly reduced the biodiversity and habitat provision in the area.

“This is a significant outcome which should serve as a reminder to others that there are rules about clearing native vegetation on regulated land,” said Ingrid Emery, Executive Director of Regional Delivery Biodiversity, Conservation and Science. “The landowner was aware that their actions were not permitted and continued to destroy our native flora, causing significant impacts on the biodiversity in the region.”

In contrast to the strict regulations in the Southern Highlands, the Hawkesbury region has adopted a more lenient approach following the introduction of the Rural Boundary Clearing Code in 2022. Unlike the Southern Highlands, where clearing native vegetation requires authorisation, landowners and developers in the Hawkesbury can clear native bush and wildlife habitats around their properties without a development application.

This legislative difference stems from a decision by the Liberal/Labor block, including Councillor Sarah McMahon, to opt into the Rural Boundary Clearing Code—the only council in the Sydney Basin to do so. The same block also previously voted down a resolution that would have required more detailed information on land clearing and its impact on koala populations within the Local Government Area (LGA).

Initially designed to protect large properties in western NSW from bushfire risks, the Code has been exploited for land development in the Hawkesbury. Notable instances include the clearance of a five-hectare site in Kurrajong managed by Matthew Bennett for his business partner Steve He, as well as a bush block in Bowen Mountain cleared of all vegetation before being sold as three separate development sites by Bennett’s company, BCM Property Group.

The Southern Highlands case marks the first occasion that the NSW Land and Environment Court has sentenced a person for this offense, highlighting the severity with which unauthorised land clearing is treated in regulated rural areas.

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