Skydive the Beach to face further scrutiny

Run down: The Stuart Park building which Skydive Australia hopes to replace with a new headquarters and amenities block. Picture: Robert Peet.
Run down: The Stuart Park building which Skydive Australia hopes to replace with a new headquarters and amenities block. Picture: Robert Peet.

After five years, three rounds of council assessments and a court challenge, Skydive the Beach finally declared “victory for commonsense” last week when its plans to build a new headquarters at Stuart Park were tipped for approval. But it appears the saga is not over yet. Kate McIlwain reports.

The legality of Wollongong City Council’s dealings with Skydive the Beach over their controversial Stuart Park headquarters is once again being called into question, with councillors called to attend an extraordinary January meeting on the issue.

Two councillors, Jill Merrin and Vicki Curran, have summoned their colleagues to meet next week – a month before their scheduled return to work – urging them to delay a decision on the development application (DA) for the company’s administration building.

In a notice of motion, Cr Merrin has asked councillors to order “an urgent comprehensive report” into the adventure company’s use of the public park and delay making decision on the office building and amenities block until the report is received. 

The motion also asks for “independent senior legal advice” addressing the legality of the council’s decision on the DA.

Cr Merrin said she and other councillors had long-held concerns about the building, and believed councillors – not council staff – should decide on the plans.

She also said approving the building plans could “put the council at a commercial disadvantage” when negotiating a price for the lease and licence of Stuart Park with the company in the future.

But Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery said the meeting was a “waste of time” and indicated that he and a number of councillors would not be supporting a delay in approving the DA.

He said it was not the responsibility of councillors to approve DAs, which are determined by staff under the council’s policy, and did not believe the Skydive plans should be treated any differently.

“This would bring the council under question, if councillors can suddenly pull one particular DA out for special attention in isolation from the policy that’s been in place for the past five years,” he said.

“[Our policy] prevents corruption and interference by councillors or anyone else by keeping it objective.”

Cr Bradbery said the council had been ordered by the Land and Environment Court to reconsider the Skydive plans solely due to a problem with the way the plans had been exhibited, meaning there was no need to debate issues like leasing and licencing. 

“The licensing or leasing of any future facilities to Skydive is a separate matter, it’s a totally different matter and will come back to a full meeting or council,” he said.

Plans stalled for years

Next week’s impromptu council meeting, which aims to once again delay approval for Skydive the Beach’s Stuart Park office building, is the latest in a long list of hurdles which have faced the company in recent years.

The DA for the new skydiving headquarters, which will include office space, a cafe and public amenities in the place of two ageing red brick blocks in the middle of the park, was first lodged in 2014, but negotiations with the council began three years earlier, in 2011.

Since then, it has been reviewed several times by the council and its  Independent Hearing and Assessment Panel (IHAP)

Late in 2014, the plans to build at the edge of the park were deferred, with IHAP recommending a new location be found. The plans were quickly resubmitted, shifting the new building to the middle of the park and this was recommended for approval at a second IHAP hearing in early 2015.

In April that year, councillors debated the company’s use of Stuart Park as a landing zone – separate to the building plans – and a majority voted to deal exclusively with Skydive to work out the terms of a land lease and drop-zone licences.

Staff members from Skydive the Beach in the public gallery
during a Wollongong City council meeting in April 2015. Picture: Kate McIlwain

Staff members from Skydive the Beach in the public gallery during a Wollongong City council meeting in April 2015. Picture: Kate McIlwain

The latest IHAP review was prompted by court action taken by community action group Protect Our Parks, launched in June 2015, in an effort to stop the business using public land.

The legal bid failed on all but one ground relating to the council’s failure to properly exhibition plans to demolish the old buildings to make way for Skydive’s plans.

In October last year, the court ruled the council must re-exhibit the plans and reconsider public opinion relating to the demolition. After a public hearing before Christmas, IHAP published a recommendation to allow the DA to be approved. 

Now, under orders from the Land and Environment Court, the council has until next Wednesday to decide whether to re-grant the court-suspended consent, re-grant it with amended conditions, or revoke it altogether.

The court will then have the final say after the council’s determination.