Wentworth Falls: 'State significant development'

Concept plans for an "enormous" $110 million wildlife park and hotel development at Bodington Hill, Wentworth Falls, have been released on the Department of Planning website, with expectations it will attract two million visitors annually.

The wildlife park will house a 12 metre high, 56-room five star hotel with animals view suites, dining and conference facilities, as well as parking for 250 cars and eight coaches. It plans to open 363 days a year and offer 1155 jobs during construction and 150 jobs from zookeepers to vets and cleaners when in operation.

The proposal has been deemed "state significant" so will bypass Blue Mountains City Council approval.

A Planning Department spokesman told the Gazette the proposal qualifies as a state significant development because it is a zoo with a capital investment value (CIV) greater than $30 million and a development for other tourist-related purposes (the hotel) with a CIV greater than $100 million.

The original development application at 10 Great Western Highway, next to Dillinger's Nursery, was approved after bitterly contested legal action went all the way from the council chambers to the NSW Supreme Court. The Mountains has since been given World Heritage status.

Plans from the original DA approved at the council meeting in 1989 show a flora and fauna park with a souvenir shop and refreshment room. (The developer at the time agreed not to bring in crocodiles after council sit-in protests). Three decades later, it was revived, with concerns by councillors and environmentalists that it was a "zombie DA" that did not conform to current standards.

The scoping report compiled by Cityscape Planning + Projects states it "represents a significant economic investment into the Blue Mountains and unique opportunity to ... grow that tourism sector [and] create significant local employment growth and cultural awareness. The proposal is not only of state significance, but from a tourism and cultural perspective of national, and international significance".

It is being promoted on the website as "a wildlife park and tourist development that seeks to offer a unique World Heritage experience offering high quality wildlife experiences together with cultural, educational entertainment and accommodation experiences ... showcasing native Australian fauna and flora" and giving "recognition of, and respect to, Australian Indigenous Ancestry" .

But the Blue Mountains Conservation Society said visitors "come to experience the natural environment, and to enjoy Australian flora and fauna in a natural setting, not caged behind a fence".

Society members are worried it will bypass local environmental protection standards and could set a precedent for development in the bushland buffer between the villages and jeopardizing the World Heritage area.

The scoping study says "preliminary consultation with stakeholders and the local community has been undertaken and continues. The result of that consultation has so far signalled support for the development." A total of 162 residents ("within 30 kms") was considered a "sufficient sample to analyse local demand for the development" in the audience survey from November 2020, with 40 per cent saying they were likely to visit.

The scoping study said the development would "lead by example in the recognition of First Nations People". However local Indigenous elders, including Gundungurra elder Aunty Sharyn Halls - who is listed in the "project team" in the report, is against the proposal.

"We didn't agree to it - Gundungurra Aboriginal Heritage Association doesn't support the zoo and the plans they have for the area," Aunty Sharyn said.

It's also possible crocodiles are not yet off the table, as the consumer survey included with the scoping study asked for residents' interest in 'feeding a crocodile'.

When contacted last year the legal representative for the project did not rule the species out, although it is not in the list of animals in the proposal. Animals mentioned include possums, lizards, gliders, birds, kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, wombats, emus, koalas, possums, cassowaries, dingoes, koalas numbats, quokkas and a 'petting zoo'.

The Society is concerned about the size of the development, as well as highway access and parking.

"The proposed development is enormous and, as we feared, literally cannot fit into the current development zone on this site. It spreads out beyond the development zone into the surrounding high ecological value E2 Environmental Conservation zone. The conditions of development consent for the old 'croc park' required all sections of the development to be contained within the development zone.

"The proposed hotel height (12m) is 4m higher than the allowable 8m height limit on the site.

"Highway access remains a challenge, with the concrete crash barrier precluding any right hand turns into and out of the site for eastbound visitors. The proponent has indicated that right hand turns on the highway will be an option for investigation in the EIS."

Site of the wildlife park: On the hill between Bullaburra and Wentworth Falls. The Blue Mountains Conservation Society has been campaigning against the "zombie DA" since it resurrected in 2019. They believed it was "dead and buried" given the three decade hiatus.

Site of the wildlife park: On the hill between Bullaburra and Wentworth Falls. The Blue Mountains Conservation Society has been campaigning against the "zombie DA" since it resurrected in 2019. They believed it was "dead and buried" given the three decade hiatus.

Details of bushfire management have been deferred to the EIS/development application stage.

Resident of Wentworth Falls, Farshad Amirbeaggi, a solicitor director with Yates Beaggi Lawyers, is acting on behalf of Aesthete No.14 Pty Ltd on the wildlife park site. Aesthete is a private company with a mailing address in Market St, Sydney. Australian Securities and Investments Commission records show the company registered the business name Blue Mountains Wildlife in March 2018.

Mr Amirbeaggi has previously told the Gazette consent for the site was activated back in 1991 and "whether people like it or not, that's the law".

The report in recommending the development states, that the "existing development consent cannot meet the present need, or that which is forecast, and would be an under development of the property and a loss of opportunity".

Mr Amirbeaggi did not return the Gazette's recent calls.