The NSW Planning Assessment Commission has performed what's been described as an "outrageous backflip" on the eve of Lend Lease's court appeal over the rejection of stage one of its $3 billion Calderwood project.
The 4800-lot subdivision, which had concept plan approval, was dealt a major blow last April when the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) found the first stage of the project, which included 231 residential lots and 120 medium-density dwellings, was not in the public interest.
In a damning 17-page report, which came after a six-month process, the PAC said the Calderwood project was inconsistent with the Illawarra Regional Strategy, which prioritises land release at West Dapto, and there were concerns over potential flooding on the site.
Lend Lease immediately lodged an appeal with the Land and Environment Court over the PAC's decision.
Now, with the court hearing set down for March 6, residents have been informed of a change in the PAC's position.
The Department of Planning and Infrastructure this week sent letters to those who had made submissions during the project's assessment.
The letter said that based on further information including "expert advice" available as a result of the proceedings, "the PAC is now satisfied that the Stage 1 project may be approved subject to appropriate conditions, including conditions relating to flood mitigation works, development control guidelines and contributions towards local infrastructure".
The first-stage application had been referred to the PAC after revelations that $48,000 in donations from Lend Lease to the previous Labor government had not been made public.
The error was put down to a departmental oversight.
The PAC's initial decision came just six weeks after the Land and Environment Court had dismissed a joint Wollongong City Council and Shellharbour City Council challenge to the approval of the Calderwood concept plan in 2010 by then Planning Minister Tony Kelly under the controversial Part 3A planning powers.
The two councils later joined the PAC to defend the Lend Lease appeal.
Kiama MP Gareth Ward said he was "absolutely disgusted" by the PAC's change in position.
"Nothing but the absolute rejection of this project would be acceptable for the community for the reasons the PAC initially outlined in its findings," Mr Ward said.
"This is an outrageous backflip by the PAC, who were commended for taking a strong stand against this inappropriate development.
"Now that it is in the appeal process, the PAC has appeared to shy away from its original decision.
"How on one hand can they say the development is incongruous with the regional strategy, and presents issues with flooding and amenity, then in a matter of months change its position to arguing the development is permissible with certain conditions attached?" Mr Ward said.
Shellharbour Mayor Marianne Saliba said while the PAC may have changed its position, Shellharbour City Council had not.
"We don't want it, but it could be forced upon us whether we want it or not," Cr Saliba said.
"How this will unfold I am not sure and what the implications are for Shellharbour City Council we just don't know. We still don't see this subdivision being beneficial to Shellharbour City at this stage."
A spokeswoman for the PAC said that as part of the court process the PAC had engaged independent planning consultants and based on that advice the PAC now believed the stage one component may be approved subject to conditions.
"However the case is now in the hands of the courts and the court is now the determining authority," she said.
The spokeswoman said the appeal would continue, with a lawyer from the Department of Planning acting under instructions from the PAC to argue the case for conditions that should be imposed.
A Lend Lease spokesman said the PAC was currently notifying applicants who made submissions to the Calderwood Stage 1 Project Application.
"Lend Lease is unable to provide further information until such time that the Calderwood Stage 1 application is determined by the NSW Land and Environment Court," he said.
Early 2009: Delfin Lend Lease lodges an application with the NSW Department of Planning to rezone a site at Calderwood for 4500 new dwellings.
May 2009: Then Planning Minister Kristina Keneally declares the proposal a major project.
November 2009: State government declares it a state significant project.
June 2010: Shellharbour City Council releases a 58-page assessment of the project declaring it economically, environmentally and socially unstainable. Wollongong City Council follows suit within weeks.
January 2011: State government approves the concept plan for the $410million project including 4800 new homes; a community centre and library; two public primary schools and one public high school; one private school and up to three childcare centres.
February 2011: The Mercury reveals Delfin Lend Lease donated more than $48,000 to the Labor Party, which were not declared. The assessment of stage one of the project is given to the independent Planning and Assessment Commission (PAC) to consider.
March 2011: Shellharbour City Council launches action in the Land and Environment Court to challenge the concept plan approval. Wollongong City Council pledges financial support for the action in May.
March 2012: The Land and Environment Court dismisses the councils’ legal challenge.
April 2012: PAC rejects stage one application.
June 2012: Delfin Lend Lease lodges an appeal against the PAC decision with the Land and Environment Court.
February 2013: PAC to approve stage one subject to conditions.