Kings Hill development north of Raymond Terrace the new battleground for koalas

SANCTUARY: Latty the koala being cared for at the Anna Bay sanctuary by Port Stephens Koalas volunteer Jo Holmquest (right) and curator Erica Johnstone.
SANCTUARY: Latty the koala being cared for at the Anna Bay sanctuary by Port Stephens Koalas volunteer Jo Holmquest (right) and curator Erica Johnstone.

Having lost the battle to save the Brandy Hill koala habitat, the Port community is being called upon to save what some experts are saying could be the last remaining healthy population of breeding koalas in Port Stephens.

Port Stephens Koalas and EcoNetwork Port Stephens this week launched their campaigns to put an immediate halt to the proposed Kings Hill development - a total of 270 hectares and more than five times the size of Brandy Hill.

The applicant says it has created a benchmark for sustainable development and has provided "an onsite managed conservation area with high value habitat for the koala and other local threatened species".

Kings Hill, located north of Raymond Terrace, was first earmarked for residential development in 2003.

There are two development applications for a total of 3500 homes accommodating an estimated 10,000 residents.

At the Port Stephens council meeting last Tuesday night, councillors unanimously agreed in principle to the preparation of a draft Voluntary Planning Agreement for the purposes of securing biodiversity offsets related to the Kings Hill DA.

They include about 231 hectares of conservation land to be rehabilitated and enhanced by the developer, prior to being transferred to council ownership.

A planner's report stated that the draft would support the future development of the urban release area at Kings Hill, expected to provide housing, jobs, and direct economic benefits estimated at $140 million annually.

The development would be determined by the Hunter & Central Coast Planning Panel on December 22, a council spokesperson said.

"The developer has prepared a detailed Species Impact Statement, which council has had reviewed by an independent ecologist, who is confident there will be no significant impact on the local koala population with conservation offsets in place.

"The DA does not seek approval for physical construction and subdivision works, it only seeks approval for the concept development of the Kings Hill Developments (KHD) land holding and stage 1 clearing works."

A spokesperson for KHD Adam Smith said that they had taken "the latest understanding of koala ecology from recognised scientists and experts from the Australian National University and Federation University Australia".

"The proposal incorporates recommendations of the recent NSW Parliament into koala populations and habitat in NSW, including an in-perpetuity 250ha conservation area for koalas and their habitat; 19ha of revegetation across treeless lands using high value preferred Koala feed tree species; 39ha of the site provides for impact avoidance and widening of movement corridors; and exclusion fences, koala grids and bridges to supplement the koala's natural habitat."

Mr Smith said that detailed and comprehensive investigations had been undertaken by various experts over an 18 year period and that the conservation outcome has been shaped by leading and recognised specialists

"Studies show that koala populations face existing threats such as bush fire, genetic loss, dog attack, vehicle strike, drought (climate change), habitat and connectivity loss. Kings Hill had responded to the key threats with a local conservation initiative that protects and manages important areas of habitat within the site for the koala to sustain the local population," he said.

"The site has been comprehensively investigated and while only one koala sighting has been recorded over the years at any one time, DNA testing of scats from detection dog surveys have confirmed that 10 koalas occupy habitat within the site."

Ben Van Der Wijngaart from PSK believes that the fate of the koala population should override any housing and economic benefits, particularly in light of the black summer bushfires which was reported to have wiped out around 70 per cent of the entire NSW koala population.

"Kings Hill has many threatened, vulnerable and endangered species including the koala," he said.

"Both applications will be subject to land clearance, with the largest site being cleared from the road to the 'enriched' conservation areas. Land clearance, restricted movements, construction, increased traffic and such can all be stressors for koalas and can impact on their health and breeding capabilities.

"Kings Hill is seen as a koala hub and has an allelic rich [measure of genetic diversity] breeding population living in a habitat that consists of prime koala habitat with over 4,700 preferred koala feed trees.

"Given the dwindling numbers in the recent past due to development and natural resource harvesting, and since the huge losses to koalas and koala habitat during the Black Summer bushfires, there are calls for the koala conservation status to be uplisted to endangered."

EcoNetwork spokesperson Kathy Brown believes that koalas have been failed at 'every level of government' and that it was time to take a stand and stop the buck passing.

"The Kings Hill proposal will be a watershed moment for koalas in Port Stephens. Kings Hill is prime koala habitat with the presence of at least three resident breeding groups making use of the site and adjacent areas," Ms Brown said.

"Environment Minister Sussan Ley recently approved the expansion of a quarry at Brandy Hill which will clear 52 hectares of core koala habitat, while both the state and local governments have invested millions of dollars in the koala hospital and associated tourism. Yet surveys have confirmed that Kings Hill is prime koala habitat with an active breeding rich koala population."

EcoNetwork believes that the federal government needs to take back control of the environment through a strengthened EPBC Act; the NSW government should implement the unanimous recommendations of the Upper House Koala Inquiry.