‘Ratbags’ told to go jump: Skydive the Beach headquarters clear for landing

Clear for landing: “These ratbags can sook and whinge as much as they like, but I make no apologies," Gareth Ward said.
Clear for landing: “These ratbags can sook and whinge as much as they like, but I make no apologies," Gareth Ward said.

One of the final hurdles which could have stopped adventure tourism giant Skydive the Beach from building its new headquarters in a beachside Wollongong park has been overturned by the NSW government.

The news, delivered on Monday by Illawarra Parliamentary Secretary Gareth Ward, has “disgusted” opponents of the building, who say the state has “sold out” to allow business interests to take over public land.

Mr Ward announced the government had cancelled two “outdated” legislative plans from 1995 and 2000 which prohibited the construction of new buildings for commercial interests in Stuart Park.

They were superseded by a Plan of Management prepared by the council in 2008, which detailed that skydiving and a new recreational facility would be allowed.

“What this means is that Skydive the Beach can now enter into a lease [for land at the park],” Mr Ward said.

Without the change, the building – which has been in the works since 2011 and would replace an ageing toilet block and council storage shed with an administration building, public amenities and cafe – could have been deemed illegal despite having an approved development application from the council. 

Confusion over which plan governed the park’s use has been a sticking point in the long-running debate over the tourism facility, and was raised during community legal action against Skydive the Beach and the council.

Despite being forwarded to the Labor lands minister in 2008, the most recent plan was never approved bringing the legality of skydiving operations under question.

Mr Ward said he had appealed to the government after being made aware of the situation by Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery “a couple of weeks ago”.

“I had no idea this plan had just been sitting there for years, and I am absolutely sick to death of red tape getting in the way of sensible decision making,” Mr Ward said.

“We have a situation where this bunch of ratbags were buggerising around trying to get in the way of Skydive the Beach.

“These ratbags can sook and whinge as much as they like, but I make no apologies for getting on and promoting jobs in the region.”

Read more: Decade-old Stuart Park plan was ‘the last act of a corrupt council’: Greens MP

Wollongong councillor Vicki Curran – who has long been campaigning against development in Stuart Park – said she was disgusted at the government’s actions and Mr Ward’s comments.

“The state government, without due process, has legitimised a plan of action that was created during a time of systemic corruption,” Cr Curran said.

“This isn’t about red tape, it’s about good process. Gareth Ward needs to stop ridiculing and disregarding those who have courageously stood up for this.”

Spokesman from Protect Our Park Incorporated, which lodged the 2015 legal action, John Riggall, said he thought the minister’s decision to cancel the 2000 and 1995 plans was “a disgrace and a sell out”.

“The 2008 plan was prepared by a council under investigation by ICAC,” he said.

A long-running saga

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.

The latest IHAP review – in late 2016  – 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.

The council then re-granted consent for the building and this was officially approved by the Land and Environment Court.

Now, the council needs to finalise the lease of the land where the building will be constructed, and the terms of the landing licence for the development to go ahead.