Fame Cove developer's contentious earthworks revealed

Thinking of doing a bit of clearing? Think twice, you’re on camera.

Recently obtained aerials reveal a compelling story on property owned by multi-millionaire and touted eco-developer Phillip Dong Fang Lee at Fame Cove, near North Arm Cove.  

In what could be seen as a litmus test for MidCoast Council’s environmental and development interests, Mr Lee is now more than one month into MidCoast Council’s stop-work and clean up order. The order expires on March 24 after the injunction was enforced in the NSW Land and Environment Court.

“There’s not much pristine bushland left along the east coast of NSW but this property lays claim to six kilometres of coastline,” said North Arm Cove Residents Association’s Len Yearsley, referring to protected coastal wetlands and marine park waters.

It is believed that a number of development applications have been submitted over the years. Maintaining farm ‘tracks’ however are a part of routine agricultural activities, with no consent required. The interpretation of when a track becomes a road will no doubt be further debated.

Watching closely will be Greg Pevitt, who up until early 2016 was the then Great Lakes Council’s sole development compliance officer. In late 2015 he fined the site $8000 – the maximum fine prior to court – for unauthorised tree clearing, telling ABC News “we won't tolerate any future breaches.”

Mr Pevitt later went to work for Mr Lee, despite other fines. Council entered into protracted negotiations to enter the site and following an enforced visit, issued the stop work order.

Purchased for $8.8 million a decade ago, Mr Lee initially entered into discussions with council for eco-cabins conceptualised by architect Peter Stutchbury, with detailed studies on local flora and fauna. Late 2015, he purchased four more properties for $16.4 million, covering more than 2700 hectares from Tea Gardens to nearby Nerong.

Today, council's director of environment and planning, Lisa Schiff said “we are taking steps to ensure… the site is appropriately managed into the future”.

With only one development compliance officer currently working across the entire local government area, MidCoast Council is hoping other department agencies are also conducting investigations. 

The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage said it is working collaboratively with other agencies to continue investigations. 

The NSW Department of Planning and Environment said it “has no formal role in investigating development activity at the site,” and referred the matter back to MidCoast Council. 

The federal Department of the Environment and Energy said it “is aware of vegetation clearing at Fame Cove and has commenced making enquiries under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999,” which protects matter of national environmental significance such as threatened species. ecological communities and wetlands of international importance.

Welcoming the court’s decision to uphold the injunction, a spokesperson for the NSW Nature Conservation Council said developers must be held responsible but that recently rewritten state conservation and coastal laws “may make it easier for developers to clear land in coastal areas in the future.”

“Firstly, weakened offsetting provisions under the Biodiversity Conservation Act could allow landholders to destroy sensitive environmental areas without using genuine like for like offsets or by simply paying money into a biodiversity fund. In order to properly protect sensitive coastal areas like Fame Cove, these areas must be off limits to biodiversity offsetting.

“Secondly, recent changes to coastal laws means that more areas of the coast will be opened up to development. Draft mapping that we have seen has failed to ensure that all environmentally sensitive areas are mapped as coastal environment or coastal wetlands and rainforests areas, with some areas mapped as coastal use area, which has weaker development controls.”

Attempts to contact Mr Pevitt and Stacks lawyer Digby Dunn (representing Mr Lee) were unsuccessful. 

The Great Lakes Advocate gratefully acknowledges the work of Domain journalist Lucy Macken.

This story Photos worth 1000 words first appeared on Great Lakes Advocate.