State panel gives tick to Wallcliffe House project in Margaret River despite bushfire concerns

Warren HatelyAugusta Margaret River Times
A development application for Wallcliffe House has been approved.
Camera IconA development application for Wallcliffe House has been approved. Credit: Supplied

Wallcliffe House’s insurers are likely to be the biggest factor guaranteeing the highest level of bushfire safety for the contentious tourism development, a State assessment panel was told last week.

In green-lighting the Julian and Alexandra Burt project, WA’s Regional Development Assessment Panel considered bushfire risks associated with the site, forcing the developers to draw upon performance-based principles to show the project could go ahead.

Shire strategic planning manager Matt Cuthbert said despite the Department of Fire and Emergency Services not endorsing the project’s bushfire management plan, that was typical of the agency.

He said DFES had not approved a bushfire management plan in the shire since 2015.

Critics — including former Shire of Augusta-Margaret River president Jamie McCall, speaking on behalf of the Preserve Gnarabup campaign, and conservationist Ray Swarts for the Friends of the Margaret River — had argued the panel could not find in favour of the reported $25 million-plus application for a boutique hotel, restaurant and chalets at the site famously destroyed during the 2011 bushfires.

However, while the five-person panel, including Cr David Binks and deputy shire president Paula Cristoffanini backed the project, presiding member Tony Aryas surprised onlookers by saying he wasn’t comfortable with the risks involved.

The Wallcliffe House project team conceded the final bushfire management plan relied upon planning approval to justify the cost and complexity involved, which included a last-resort fire shelter if evacuation was not possible due to the single exit from the site.

Expert Anthony Rowe said the project’s insurers had stringent expectations of their own.

Mr Cuthbert said State guidelines were specifically formulated knowing most coastal tourism projects lacked second exit options.

But Mr Aryas said the proponents effectively relied on the panel’s trust to acquit the final bushfire emergency plan.

“We must give due regard to the issue of fire safety and at this point I’m not comfortable,” he said.

“I’m not comfortable that we as a panel should leave that to be addressed by other parties.”

While only some of the site was classified at the highest risk level possible, Mr Aryas said people’s lives were involved in that decision.

Nonetheless, Cr Cristoffanini moved to approve the project while adding an amendment guaranteeing the fire shelter was a compulsory aspect.

Environmental and Aboriginal and European heritage concerns barely rated a mention during the meeting, with members satisfied by the level of consultation and high-level sign-offs already achieved.

It followed a fiery meeting in Margaret River in February, where residents said the project should not proceed on what was a former Aboriginal burial ground.

And that outrage followed revelations the developer had backed out of a commitment for the restaurant and wider site to remain open to the public.

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