17/09/2008 - 22:00

Clarity needed on cockatoo

17/09/2008 - 22:00

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THE development approvals process in Western Australia is beset by a number of challenges, but none is likely to have a wider impact than the Carnaby's cockatoo.

THE development approvals process in Western Australia is beset by a number of challenges, but none is likely to have a wider impact than the Carnaby's cockatoo.

Found throughout the South West of the state, the bird is classified as a threatened species under the federal government's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

Under the legislation, any project that interferes with the cockatoo's habitat - banksia woodland - should be referred to the federal government for assessment.

It's a policy that has affected projects as diverse as the Fiona Stanley Hospital, LandCorp's Neerabup industrial estate, and residential subdivisions in Mandurah.

And while the western ringtail possum has presented similar challenges for developers, particularly around Busselton, the cockatoo presents a much larger environmental hurdle, for several reasons.

Firstly, the cockatoo is nomadic, and while it breeds in the Wheatbelt region, the bird forages across the entire Swan coastal plain, in an area stretching from Geraldton to Esperance.

Secondly, while the legislation is in place to protect the species, the government is yet to articulate a policy for how it will be applied.

Theoretically, the issue affects any new development on banksia woodland between Geraldton and Esperance, but to date only two offset deals have been struck between developers and the federal government.

The first of these - a three-way joint venture for a shopping centre and residential subdivision in Mandurah - required each developer to pay $100,000 towards cockatoo research funding and the purchase of a section of bushland near New Norcia.

The second deal, for the Fiona Stanley Hospital, was an offset package worth $2.25 million, to compensate for clearing 25 hectares of cockatoo habitat.

On a per-hectare basis, the first deal was worth about $8,000/ha to the developer, far less than the $100,000/ha paid by the state government for the Fiona Stanley Hospital site.

According to Coffey Environments principal and environmental planning consultant, Dr Paul Van der Moezel, it's the latter deal that has developers looking for an indication from the government on how it will implement its policy.

"A lot of developers in the Perth metro area and in Mandurah have far larger amounts of cockatoo habitat already zoned urban and a lot have already got state [Environmental Protection Authority] approval," Mr Van der Moezel said.

"Some of them will be looking to clear 100 or 200 hectares of banksia woodland. It's not definite that they will just multiply the Fiona Stanley rate - it's calculated on a case-by-case basis - but it's still concerning."

Over the past few weeks, the Urban Development Institute of Australia (WA) has met with developers and the federal government to try and determine a policy to interpret the legislation.

According to UDIA chief executive Debra Goostrey, the federal government still favours on-site mitigation - such as planting extra vegetation to create density - rather than offsets, which she said gave some reassurance to developers.

"But there still needs to be some more sufficient research to quantify the foraging area needs for the birds, so developers can make good decisions," Ms Goostrey said.

She also said project assessments needed to be more strategic, rather than being performed at the end of the development process.

"The implications are absolutely enormous, which is why we're trying to work with the federal government to get a coordinated approach. We need to have [it] in the planning cycle to get the right outcome," Ms Goostrey said.

A spokesperson for one developer, who did not wish to be named, said the issue was a major hurdle in the approvals process.

"It's a broad industry concern and there's a lack of clarity around what needs to be referred and what doesn't," he said.

"But we want sensible clarity - we don't want the government to come back and say we need to refer everything."

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