Five-star resort for Wallcliffe House?

Warren HatelyAugusta Margaret River Times
The Friends of the Margaret River’s Peta Goodwin and Ray Swarts, with local anthropolgist Jinni Wilson, overlooking the site containing the ruins of Wallcliffe House, which is earmarked for a resort development.
Camera IconThe Friends of the Margaret River’s Peta Goodwin and Ray Swarts, with local anthropolgist Jinni Wilson, overlooking the site containing the ruins of Wallcliffe House, which is earmarked for a resort development. Credit: Picture: Warren Hately

Conservationists are gearing up to fight plans to develop the Margaret River region’s historic Wallcliffe House into a high-end resort.

The proposal to advertise a scheme amendment for the privately owned site on the banks of the Margaret River, surrounded by Aboriginal heritage sites, was withdrawn by the Augusta-Margaret River Shire council last week so elected members could digest a hefty consultant’s report.

The proposal would see the ruined heritage building redeveloped into a five-star hotel featuring up to 50 bedrooms as well as a restaurant.

Chalets and parking could also be a feature within the site’s grounds, the proponents said.

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Alexandra Burt, the daughter of iron ore magnate and Voyager Estate founder Michael Wright, and her husband Julian bought the property for an undisclosed sum last year when they signalled plans to develop the site.

The owners said extensive consultation had already occurred, but they were waiting on formal initiation of the scheme amendment advertising to kickstart a deeper conversation with conservation, historical, and Aboriginal heritage groups.

In a letter provided to the Times, the owners pledged to protect the location, while adding much-needed high-end accommodation to activate the site.

Artists’ impressions of the design, how it would affect the river, and the specific height imagined for the project were not available.

Friends of the Margaret River’s Peta Goodwin and Ray Swarts questioned the Shire report, which found no environmental negatives.

“The iconic status and high-profile location of the site, the fact it holds significant historical, cultural and environmental values, and that it can be viewed from the river and the very popular scenic lookout on Wallcliffe Road suggests that sensitive development should enhance these values, not diminish or subsume them,” Mr Swarts said.

Ms Goodwin rejected claims the project would open the site to residents, saying it clearly targeted wealthy tourists.

She also said the amendment would remove a clause disallowing any “material change to the visual appearance and character of the site”.

The Friends want to see the house restored and turned into a museum, exhibition space, and restaurant open to the public.

“It holds a special place in the community’s identity, and the ruins of the house have heritage listing,” Ms Goodwin said.

“The community tried to buy the property prior to Ms Burt purchasing it, which suggests that its importance in our sense of place goes deep.”

Local anthropologist Jinni Wilson said a recent decision to ban climbing and access to nearby cliffs considered sacred to the Wadandi people showed the nearby landscape should be left alone.

“A large area surrounding the Rivermouth, Surfers Point, and Wallcliffe Estate is a protected heritage landscape,” she said.

“It’s a place rich in shared histories, a place where a whole network of stories interconnect: stories about colonialism and dispossession, about reconciliation and moving forward together, and about looking after country.”

“The Shire has a responsibility to protect our heritage for the sake of future generations,” Ms Wilson said.

“Many in the community are, and always will be, devastated by the loss of the house (in 2011): don’t rub it in by ruining the landscape as well.”

The owners bought the site, destroyed by the Margaret River bushfires, as an “opportunity to breathe new life into this regional icon and share it with others in the form of a boutique luxury hotel”.

“We are incredibly mindful of the property’s indigenous heritage, European heritage, historical architecture, landscape, and environmental values, including the river,” the owners said.

“Our vision is to recreate a new Wallcliffe, respecting and honouring all the elements mentioned above, and offer visitors the chance to experience the very best of Margaret River.”

Mr and Mrs Burt said they welcomed community feedback.

The Times understands Wadandi elders and descendants of the pioneering Bussell family have discussed the project.

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