Shoalhaven Council's Director of Assets and Works Ben Stewart said he made the decision to clear the bush along Gerroa Road.
The only decision councillors had to make was awarding the tender for the work.
Council received black spot funding to widen Gerroa Road at the intersection with Beach Road and planned to remove a number of trees, including the Bum Tree.
“The decision to undertake the work under the Roads Act was my responsibility acting on behalf of council,” Mr Stewart said.
“An environmental appraisal was undertaken in January to provide National Parks [an opportunity to] comment,” Mr Stewart said.
“The regulations determine the work could be carried out under the Roads Act.”
A number of councillors revealed they had never seen the Review of Environmental Factors [REF] report into the clearing of the road.
The report revealed NSW Office of Environment and the National Parks and Wildlife Service had concerns about council’s plan to clear Gerroa Road.
Councillor Andrew Guile said the REF had not been made available to councillors.
“All we saw were the tender documents, which were considered under confidential session,” he said.
“That was the only decision put forward to us, there was no detail on the proposed clearing.
“Environmental factors didn’t feature at all in council’s deliberations.
“A couple of us tried to introduce that aspect but the advice we were given by council officers was those issues were dealt with under safety provisions with RMS.”
“I believe council has handled this poorly,” he said.
“The consultation was a press release prior to Christmas and in that it never stated the scope of work.
“The only other consultation was with concerned groups and it was only to decide what to do with the Bum Tree once it was removed.
“Council will say they have met the required criteria.
“I feel like we’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes on this issue.”
Cr Amanda Findley said the report was never part of council’s business paper.
“We made the decision prior to Christmas and it was all about awarding the tender for the works, there was nothing in respect to the clearing and we never had the REF report,” she said.
She said she feels completely stone walled after she tried on five occasions to put forward alternatives to the clearing, ranging from community consultation through to walking away from the project completely which all failed to gain backing.
“I feel straight jacketed in respect of this issue,” she said.
“There has been no meaningful consultation.
“Eighty per cent of roads in Shoalhaven do not comply with Austroads guidelines, yet we have council insisting this section of the road complies.”
Deputy mayor Cr John Wells said he been made aware of the contents of the report but hadn’t seen it.
“I know OEH weren’t happy, they never are happy with anything in regards to the removal of vegetation,” he said.
“I was aware staff and management were consulting with NPWS and I understand they didn’t put in any impediments to the work.
“Questions were asked during the Policy and Resources Committee about environmental issues and we were assured work was being done under the Roads Act and that overruled the environmental factors.
The general manager was encouraged to further liaise with the NPWS and those meetings were held.
“From council’s point view we looked at it as a roads job, from a road safety point of view and not an environmental issue.
“The RMS and the federal government agreed to black spot funding to improve line of site at the intersection and make it safer.”
Sudmalis says lives come before trees
Member for Gilmore Ann Sudmalis has been questioned on her stance in relation to the the removal of trees along Gerroa Road.
Mrs Sudmalis was a passionate protester at the removal of 100 trees along Moss Vale Road, Kangaroo Valley in 2007.
The federal member said she had five emails about the clearing on Gerroa Road, including questions relating to her position in connection to Kangaroo Valley protest.
“I was at Kangaroo Valley but there is a bit of difference,” she said.
“I had attended three very strong public events in Kangaroo Valley, where the RTA [RMS] had predetermined the outcome and while they were giving lip service as public consultation they were not taking any notice of the public.
“I was involved with the community in that process.
“I don’t think the residents were respected during the consultation process.
“Because the trees in that environment had resulted in fatalities RTA [RMS] made the decision the corridor had to be lightened.
“Gerroa Road is subject to the same level of fatalities and those considerations are probably still relevant.
“I have had no input on this situation, this black spot funding was gained under the previous government,” she said.
“Federal funding goes to the state government who then work in conjunction with local councils to determine where black spot money is expended.
“It is usually in direct relationship to a number of traffic incidents, generally in relation to fatal accidents.
“It was and always will be about putting people’s lives in front of trees and that is predominantly where we should be.”
Mayor accused of playing politics with trees
Budgong resident Ken Stewart has called Shoalhaven Mayor Joanna Gash a hypocrite in her stance toward removal of the trees.
“I stood alongside Joanna and other political representatives in Kangaroo Valley when they were protesting about the then RTA’s removal of 100 trees along Moss Vale Road,” he said.
“The RTA made the decisions and there was great media coverage of it all. “There were police everywhere and councillor John Anderson got carted away in the back of a paddy wagon.
“There were many people who saw her [Mrs Gash] there.
“And yet here she is supporting the clearing of these trees along Gerroa Road.
“It is just so hypocritical of Joanna,” he said.
“A Labor state government was in power when the protest was being made and now we have a Liberal state government in power – it looks like political expediency on behalf of the mayor.”
Council or the RMS, who made the call?
Shoalhaven Mayor Joanna Gash claims council’s clearing of trees along Gerroa Road is in response to work requested by Roads and Maritime Services.
“RMS asked us to remove the trees and that is what we are doing,” she said.
She admitted she had not read the full environmental report into the project.
“I don’t read every report in full, I’m not an expert, we are guided by staff. They are the professional people with all the reading they have done,” she said.
“Council are not experts on roads, RMS are and we are only doing what we were asked to do.
“Staff looked at it all and this is what they have advised us.
“Safety has to be the utmost thing in our minds, not the Bum Tree.
“There is a strong campaign running against this work. Some of the emails coming into council are atrocious, they are rude, vindictive and not on. And most of them aren’t signed.”
A RMS spokesperson said Gerroa Road is a local road under the control of Shoalhaven City Council.
“RMS will offer advice when asked,” the spokesperson said.
“This work is being carried out under federal black spot funding and RMS’s only role was to ensure council’s application met the federal criteria.”
Council’s director of Assets and Works Ben Stewart said he couldn’t comment on the mayor’s comments council was acting on a request from RMS.
“I would have to clarify the mayor’s comments,” he said.