Developers are navigating choppy waters to progress tourism resorts in regional WA.
Major developers are rolling the dice in regional Western Australia with proposals for tourism resorts, all of which are in the hands of the environmental regulator.
Adrian Fini’s $280 million Smiths Beach Project plan is among the bids awaiting approval, along with Saracen Properties’ $118 million Gnarabup proposal and Tattarang’s $85 million Ningaloo Lighthouse Project.
The proposed Yallingup development is meeting strong community push-back, but Mr Fini relishes a challenge.
The developer behind the State Treasury buildings, Bunker Bay Resort and other significant projects, bought the 40-hectare site for $10 million in 2014 with several partners, including Michael Oosterhof.
The site was linked to a Crime and Corruption Commission inquiry in 2007, when former premier Brian Burke’s lobbying activities for property developers were examined.
It went on the market in 2012 and development approvals remain over it today, but Mr Fini has gone back to the drawing board by submitting a revised plan to authorities.
The proposal progressed to a public comment phase today as it moves through the State Development Assessment Unit (SDAU).
Community groups have mobilised to voice their concerns about these developments, and each proponent has different approaches to navigating these issues.
For Mr Fini, navigating community concern has been about getting on the front foot.
He has taken the rare step of fronting council meetings about the project to address public concerns, and his team lodged its own submission for the Environmental Protection Authority to assess the project.
“We’ve been to council many times, I’ve personally addressed them … we’ve engaged with close to 300 people by now,” he said in an exclusive interview with Business News.
“We’ve got an action group against us, which we have communicated with from day one.”
Save Smiths Beach is led by Yallingup’s David Mitchell, whose father, Bill, protested a proposal for the site by David McKenzie in the late 1990s.
The action group has accused Mr Fini’s Smiths Beach Project of attempting to bypass local planning schemes by submitting its plans to the SDAU, which was set up during COVID to progress projects of economic significance.
The WA Planning Commission-led pathway, which will determine close to $5 billion worth of projects, is only bound by the criteria of the EPA.
But as Mr Fini explained, the approval process was extremely rigorous.
“There’s nothing to hide; we have to receive 40 approvals from authorities to get this approved,” he said.
“Something that’s already approved, and we are trying to better, we still have to get 40 new approvals.”
He stressed that his proposal was a significant departure from what has previously been approved on the site, which is a subdivision for more than 500 dwellings.
Mr Fini’s plan includes a 65-room hotel, 61 holiday homes, a camping area with 36 raised platforms for tents, a wellness centre, surf club and general store.
Adrian Fini says he wants to create one of the world's best coastal villages. Photo: David Henry
Mr Fini told Business News he took on the site with a view to creating a focal point for the Cape to Cape Walk Track that worked in with the landscape.
“The first thing we [asked] was what we could do that’s a lot better than what has been approved, and really that’s where this journey started,” he said.
He said the group’s objective was to build the best seaside village in Australia, if not the world, and appointed landscape architects to assess what could be built using the topography of the site.
The proponents engaged Kerry Hill Architects, spaceagency, Peter Hobbs Architects, Officer Woods Architects, MORQ and Sharni Howe Architects for the development.
Opponents of the project point out that Mr Fini’s proposed resort occupies a greater land area than what was approved for the site in 2011.
Mr Fini has applied to develop 19ha of the coastal land, whereas the existing approval is for 16.4ha. While he accepts the proposal covers a greater footprint than the approved subdivision, Mr Fini explained that his plan was lower density.
“Every dwelling has been plotted based on the trees that exist, we’ve been there with spatial modelling, many times,” he said.
The proposed Smiths Beach project.
Save Smiths Beach’s Mr Mitchell, who has worked in the property industry (including for Mr Fini), defended claims that he and his family have a vested interest in the area due to their ownership of property near the development site.
“This is not NIMBYism,” Mr Mitchell told Business News.
“The developer criticises our group for having a ‘vested interest’ in Smiths.
We have a ‘vested interest’ in upholding the long established and supported laws that ensure a sustainable development.
“If the locals are not going to fight for transparency and the law, then who is?”
Saracen’s Gnarabup resort proposal, which hotel provider Marriott International is backing via its Westin brand, is also with the SDAU.
“The reality of the SDAU is it’s a highly intensive review process that takes a lot more time than the standard Joint Development Assessment Panel process because of what’s involved,” he said.
“A project that might take six months to go through JDAP might take nine to 12 months to go through the SDAU because of the amount of work involved to get an approval through the SDAU. “It’s far more rigorous than the normal JDAP process.”
Joel Saraceni says the plans Gnarabup tourism resort meet all the planning guidelines.
Saracen Properties, which was also behind the Vasse land development, Saracen Estates and several Perth projects, took on the site because of its pre-existing zoning.
Development approvals on the site date back to 2004, and more recently a $15 million luxury resort was approved for the area.
Saracen’s proposal includes a five-star, 121-bed hotel and 80 short-stay houses and apartments on 13.73ha of coastal land.
Mr Saraceni said the site’s pre-existing approvals were a drawcard.
“What attracted us was a prime piece of real estate, with the zoning that allowed it to be one of only two tourism precincts in the South West; Smiths Beach is the other,” he said.
The proposed Gnarabup resort.
And like Smiths Beach, Gnarabup is undergoing the highest level of environmental review–a public environmental review–by the EPA.
The environmental regulator attracted 1,244 public submissions on Gnarabup, including 1,111 calling for the development to be subject to a public environmental review.
Smiths Beach attracted 2,370 submissions, 2,260 of which called for a public environmental review. Local action group Preserve Gnarabup is leading the campaign against the proposal, arguing it is not sensitive to the natural landscape.
Preserve Gnarabup spokesperson Beth Carlessi stressed that the group was not anti-development. “We support tourism that protects the natural environment, which attracts people to our region in the first place,” Ms Carlessi said.
“A large and dense housing estate on this fragile limestone headland … is not appropriate.
“We need sensitive development that protects the environmental values that make this a nice place to visit.”
Mr Saraceni said the action group’s claims that the site was a habitat of the critically endangered western ringtail possum were unfounded, as a zoologist had studied the land.
He said the proposal followed all the local planning guidelines.
“What we’re developing is within the inbuilt expectations for what you can build on site [but] that doesn’t change the fact that some people don’t want the site to be developed at all,” Mr Saraceni said.
“We’ll never satisfy people who say you shouldn’t be allowed to develop your land that you’re allowed to develop … we’re always going to be diametrically opposed.”
He said community concerns around bushfire risks were well-founded, and the company was working on a comprehensive plan to manage that risk.
Mr Saraceni said the development, which he hoped would progress to construction next year, was going through the highest level of public scrutiny.
The development is also linked to two EPA submissions. The environmental impacts of the resort proposal, comprising a hotel, eco tents, villas and caravan sites to accommodate 550 people, are being assessed by the regulator.
Additionally, a Main Roads WA proposal to realign the road on the western edge of the caravan park, which would reposition the resort closer to the ocean, is with the EPA.
Juliane Bush says it is important to involve the whole community in a project.
Tattarang’s northwest engagement manager Juliane Bush was employed to navigate community concerns around the $85 million proposal.
Ms Bush told Business News that a significant part of local engagement included speaking with nearby business.
“Whenever you have a tourism product, it doesn’t sit in isolation, it’s got to work amongst a broader industry,” she said.
“There’s a huge piece that we’ve done here around connecting with local businesses.”
Fiveight's proposed Ningaloo Lighthouse Resort.
Ms Bush said the development, which was in a World Heritage area, attracted concerns around protecting the local marine habitat and wildlife, including the turtle population.
“The community group submissions, their thinking is really consistent with where we want the project to be in terms of driving sustainable outcomes,” he said.
Mr Meredith added that the road realignment, which would involve the clearing of 12ha of native vegetation, would be key in positioning the project as world leading.
He described the road adjoining the caravan park as an “unacceptable risk factor”, which prompted Tattarang to speak with Main Roads to pursue a separation of the road and resort.
“The road relocation is a critical part of being able to deliver the caravan park,” Mr Meredith said.
Tattarang aims to build the Exmouth development, designed by Kerry Hill Architects, by late 2024.