Concern over reopening of airfield decision

There are growing concerns over the future of Katoomba Airfield and why a decision to reject giving a lease for helicopter charter flights is being reviewed.

The Blue Mountains Conservation Society and the Katoomba Airfield Community Group (KACG) have both contacted the Gazette expressing dismay that the licensing process has been reopened after the application was rejected earlier this year because of community opposition.

More than 12,000 people signed a petition which was presented to parliament by Blue Mountains MP, Trish Doyle, and 1,582 written submissions were made to the department of planning, industry and environment, 85 per cent of which were opposed.

The extent of opposition was quoted by the crown lands commissioner when rejecting the application by Derek and Floyd Larsen for a long-term lease over the airstrip for fixed wing and helicopter charter flights.

The department's deputy secretary of crown lands, Anne Skewes, said in January there had been "overwhelming community opposition" to the Larsens' proposal due to concerns about potential impacts on the Blue Mountains region.

"In direct response to feedback from the community, the department has declined the application by FlyBlue to lease Katoomba Airfield at Medlow Bath to use as a recreational aviation hub," Ms Skewes said.

But after the Larsens complained about flaws in the consultation process, a review was ordered. It found that while written submissions had been analysed, verbal input made at community meetings had not been summarised.

The review ordered changes to the department's processes.

Another report is now being prepared based on the review and the department will use it, plus any further submissions from the Larsens, to re-evaluate the lease application.

Tara Cameron, president of the Blue Mountains Conservation Society, said the plans to conduct a review by speaking only with the Larsens was "outrageous and a betrayal of due process".

"The statements by an unnamed department spokesman as reported in the Gazette [August 12] suggest that the decision will be re-evaluated behind closed doors," she said.

"Members of the community are indignant that the will of the people is being overturned and it appears that the future of Katoomba Airfield will now be decided on again, but this time unfairly without community input."

The co-convenor of KACG, Greg Thompson, said: "Why are the voices of two people [the Larsens] being heard above that of 85 per cent of the community engagement strategy responses, 12,200 NSW petition signatories and an additional 10,100-plus online petition signers?

"Is community sentiment truly at the heart of this review?"

Ms Doyle said: "I was gobsmacked to hear criticism of the consultation process, by a few people who didn't like the outcome and sought to have it changed. It was an open, thorough and fair process.

"Many members of the Blue Mountains community reached out to me before, during and after these consultations, and the message conveyed to me and the department was abundantly clear - the commercialisation of Katoomba Airfield is not in the best interests of our community and most certainly not in the best interests of the environment."

Crown lands said the reasons for rejecting the lease application included noise pollution, preserving the appeal of the Mountains as a peaceful environment, potential pollution of water supplies and protecting Aboriginal heritage.

"Any decision to ignore these concerns will be met with anger and indignation," Ms Cameron said.

"For 20 years, the community has argued for Katoomba Airfield to be incorporated into the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and managed as an emergency airfield for bushfires.

"We now look forward to working constructively with government to honour the original decision and reach a sensible outcome that permanently protects the world heritage values which are the basis of our local tourism industry."

A spokeswoman for the department of planning, industry and environment issued a brief statement to the Gazette: "The department is in the process of considering feedback from the proponent and other relevant information before finalising its evaluation."