PALM, Wattle and Acacia Street property owners are still waiting for answers three months after waking up to discover a sewerage treatment plant being constructed – without notice or consultation – near their beachside homes at Forrest Beach.
Concerned residents met with Hinchinbrook Shire Councillors and staff in Council Chambers last week to express their ongoing concerns over the unexpected construction of a Wisconsin Mounds sewerage treatment plant on a recreation reserve in their coastal community as part of the RV park development.
But Council staff and a representative of the primary contractor revealed they require more time to address the issues before another meeting can be scheduled in 2022.
Hinchinbrook Shire Mayor Ramon Jayo indicated that he is eager to resolve issues surrounding the controversial installation of the sewerage treatment plant and doesn’t want the issue “dragging out any longer”.
While Mayor Jayo has apologised for failing to consult with landowners prior to construction, conceding that council failed to abide by “good neighbour policy”, he maintains that Council has not done anything unlawful.
“Council acknowledges the issues raised by Forrest Beach residents and will address all concerns as soon as possible, but we’ve done nothing illegal,” Cr Jayo said.
But Slone Stevenson, an Environmental Scientist who owns a holiday home on Palm Street that backs onto the treatment plant, outlined several concerns with the sewerage treatment plant that she claims may “not function the way they think it will”.
“There’s a human impact to consider for people who walk their dogs, play, or otherwise use the area,” she said.
Ms Stevenson explained that her “biggest concern” was the wet season because the Wisconsin Mounds have been constructed in an area that naturally ponds, which will decrease the effectiveness of the system and potentially impact water quality.
While the Environmental Authority for the treatment plant notes that disposal will be through irrigation, Ms Stevenson claims that the mounds will have “no capacity to irrigate” during events of rain, ponding or saturation and she is alarmed that council has failed to obtain hydrological reports that provide a baseline for water quality for monitoring purposes.
As her property is within meters of the mounds, Ms Stephenson is also anxious about the impact of potential flooding and the notably absent vegetation barriers which need to be installed before the treatment plant is operational.
Despite these barriers likely extending to her rear boundary, Ms Stevenson commented that no one from Council has consulted with her to provide details about the nature or type of vegetation that will be used.
Fellow Palm Street resident and former Hinchinbrook Shire Council Engineer, Bruce Leach, shares many of Ms Stevenson’s concerns and delivered a detailed presentation on behalf of the affected property owners to Council, outlining three key concerns and requesting several resolutions during the meeting.
Mr Leach alleges that the Wisconsin Mounds installed in the recreational reserve behind his property were constructed in an obvious drainage line over an old dump site, without consultation or landowners’ consent, and that they will not operate effectively in periods of wet weather without breaching the Environmental Authority.
Mr Leach further contended that the mounds should have been treated as “assessable development” and that it is not acceptable that council pursues reports after construction in what he referred to as an attempt to “work around” its failure to abide by expected planning practices.
“Our argument is that the mounds are operational works filling so therefore, under the code, because they don’t meet the requirements of the code automatically they are in effect assessable development, meaning that council should have gone through the planning process rather than just plonking them there,” Mr Leach said.
“Council has agreed to do the hydrological assessment of possible draining impacts but the other parts of the code relate to amenity considerations which they obviously haven’t addressed,” he said.
In addition to requesting that the mounds be removed and that any future alternate works be conducted in accordance with relevant codes, standards and practices, Mr Leach said that Council’s alleged failure to treat works as assessable development “can and will be pursued”.
Mr Leach also questioned why the sewerage treatment plant was not installed on the RV site as per Council’s previous communications with residents.
“The residents here have always been under the understanding that all works were to be installed in the caravan park reserve.
“A few months ago, one of our concerned residents did actually ring the Council and query some of the investigation type works that were occurring and asked whether they had something to do with possible treatment plant works, and again we received the response that all works were to be in that caravan park reserve,” he said.
Mr Leach said that the Material Change of Use (MCU) application also shows that the sewerage treatment plant was to be located at the caravan park reserve, which he described as a “clear anomaly”.
“We think that’s significant. You can argue that Council wasn’t even certain themselves as to where the works were going to be,” he said.
Residents have also criticised Council’s “lack of transparency” in submitting and assessing the MCU application, citing that it’s “not clear what is being proposed”.
It is the residents’ understanding that the MCU application didn’t include a Site Layout Plan or Conditions of Use and yet the MCU was approved with notes that the missing items could be submitted to Council at a later date for approval.
“Council hasn’t actually set out what the bounds of the caravan park use is, it allows them in effect to do what they like…that’s a concern,” Mr Leach said.
“The Material Change of Use is to ‘formalise an existing use’, so our query is, what is the existing use?
“As far as we can ascertain, the existing use is a 48-hour RV parking trial, [but] the inference is there’s a caravan park in operation, and there’s not.”
The residents claim to have made numerous requests to see report findings relevant to the development and whilst the hydrological report was provided on the morning of the meeting, they are still yet to be provided with soil test reports to allay concerns about potential contamination of ground water from the old dump site and “voids” under the mounds that would further decrease their effectiveness.
Following the presentation, Mayor Jayo commented that there were “probably some things that we can agree on, some things we can’t” and appeared motivated to set a date for a new meeting once staff had had the opportunity to address operational matters and provide advice.
Hinchinbrook Shire Council CEO Kelvin Tytherleigh noted that council agreed to delay commission of the treatment plant until the hydrological study had been obtained and assured residents that information and answers would be provided.
A representative of the contractor who completed the works attended the meeting by virtual hook-up commented that he was “concerned there may be a level of misunderstanding or misinformation [that residents] may be relying on” and offered to provide a written response to all issues raised.
“It’s important we provide the correct information, it will go a long way to assuring them,” he said.
Residents remain hopeful that the pending responses will indeed address their concerns and Council is undoubtedly seeking an end to the sewerage saga, but for the time being it would appear the treatment plant remains at a standstill and the waiting game continues.