Lease over Katoomba airfield under review

A government decision to refuse a long-term lease over Katoomba airfield is being reviewed after complaints by the potential lease-holders.

Floyd and Derek Larsen at the Katoomba Airfield back in October 2018.

Floyd and Derek Larsen at the Katoomba Airfield back in October 2018.

The department of planning, industry and environment in January rejected an application by FlyBlue, owned by Floyd and Derek Larsen, for a lease at the airfield.

The department cited "overwhelming community opposition" to the plans for the land, which is in Medlow Bath.

But the Larsens complained about the fairness of the community consultation process.

Mrs Larsen said in a press release earlier this year that FlyBlue had gone to "great efforts to counter the misinformation being perpetrated in the local community during the processes" and had received assurances from both NSW Crown Lands and the NSW State Government.

"We were repeatedly assured that we should not be concerned; we should 'trust the Government process', that the minister would make an evidence-based decision only," she said.

"Of course, we respect the rights of all individuals to voice their views on Katoomba Airfield and its future, however the final licence decision should be based on truth, fairness, respect and transparency - not lies."

Mrs Larsen said the department told FlyBlue that a lease would not be offered and that its licence to operate the airfield was to be terminated and replaced with a new licence that prohibited helicopter flights.

According to the department, this was done because of community fears that joy flights would ruin the peaceful environment, even though the lease conditions proposed by FlyBlue specifically excluded joy flights and circuit training.

"The truth is the Department was in possession of FlyBlue's full and comprehensive business plan since January 2019," she said.

"We were continually transparent about our vision for this unique site and took measures to explicitly counter the misinformation being conveyed to the broader community, and NSW State Parliament.

"The Minister said he would make an evidence-based decision, yet the evidence the Department has relied on in its decision-making process on is based on utter lies," she said.

The lease was publicly exhibited last winter for eight weeks and attracted 1,582 submissions. More than 85 per cent opposed the application and only 13 per cent were in support or offered conditional support.

The department's deputy secretary of crown lands, Anne Skewes, said: "In direct response ... the department has declined the application by FlyBlue to lease Katoomba Airfield at Medlow Bath to use as a recreational aviation hub.

"Among concerns were noise pollution, preserving the appeal of the Mountains as a peaceful environment, potential pollution of water supplies, and protecting Aboriginal heritage."

The department also advised the Larsens that a revised application may be considered if commercial helicopter flights were removed from the application.

After the Larsens complained, the department secretary directed crown lands to reviewthe process.

The review found that written submissions had been analysed but that verbal input had not been summarised.

"In addition to the written submissions, the department also conducted four drop-in community information sessions, two targeted stakeholder meetings and direct consultation with other government agencies. No summary of any concerns or considerations identified through these other forms of consultation has been completed," the review found.

It identified four "areas for improvement". These were:

  • the format of public meetings;
  • how submissions were assessed;
  • material differences between the published community engagement strategy and the process used; and
  • use of community engagement strategy guidance material.

A department spokesman said, as a result of the review, a further report will be prepared and published on the department's website.

The department will implement the recommended improvements to the Community Engagement Strategy process.

It will also conduct another evaluation of the lease application, considering the report as well as any further submissions from the Larsens, before making a decision on whether or not the lease application in its current form should progress, he said.

Mrs Larsen, director of FlyBlue, told the Gazette: "We concur with the findings of the Crown Land Commissioner and we look forward to working with Crown Lands with respect to the long-term future of Katoomba Airfield."