McDonald's will take Wollongong City Council to court next week over its plans to build a fast-food outlet in the village of Wongawilli.
The company's controversial proposal for a 24-hour McDonald's, plus a petrol station and childcare centre, has not been rejected or approved by the council. However, it is listed as being a "deemed refusal" on the council website as it was not determined within a certain timeframe.
Next week, the two parties will appear before the NSW Land and Environment Court for a directions hearing.
This is a beautiful part of our local government area, and McDonald's isn't exactly renowned for sensitive design - I think we can do better.
When it was first lodged, in late 2019, the proposal sparked an outcry from residents who are building their homes in the fast-growing West Dapto development area.
Councillors, including Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery, also raised concerns, saying they did not believe the area - which is meant to be a "neighbourhood centre" to cater to residents in the estates of Sanctuary Ponds, Sheargolds and Greenview - was designed for an all-hours restaurant and service station.
"I think councillors pictured that this zoning was meant to be an opportunity for perhaps a small supermarket arrangement or shops that would supply food and a few services," Cr Bradbery said at the time. "It wasn't supposed to be at the magnitude of a service station and a McDonald's complex.
Wongawilli resident Natasha Panetta, who has headed up a group of residents trying to fight the plan for the past nine months, said "my stomach just dropped" when she heard the fast-food giant would be taking the matter to court.
"I just thought 'it's all over', and I'm worried that now it will just be approved without the court knowing how the residents feel," she said.
"I'm worried we won't get the chance to have our views heard, and I'm also disappointed that now our council will have to foot the bill to fight this in court."
She said residents' main concerns remained that it was out of step with the character of the area, and that it would cause traffic and safety problems in an already congested area where major roads were still being developed.
Councillor Ann Martin - who represents the southern suburbs - said, under the planning laws, developers were allowed to lodge a case in the LEC to get a determination if one had not been made by a council within 40 days.
"This is a standard strategy that the development sector uses of keeping the wheels turning on a project that they are trying to get an approval for, and there's nothing devious or unusual about it," she said.
Cr Martin said she had been advised that the council was still assessing the DA and said it had not made any decision on whether it should be refused or approved.
The project will likely come before the Wollongong Local Planning Panel, where residents who objected to the proposal can have their say, next month.
"We won't be determining it before the meeting of the WLPP," Cr Martin said.
"Anyone who has lodged an objection will be informed when that panel hearing will be and they will have the chance to have their say."
If the council does decide to knock back the plans, then the case will continue in court.
Cr Martin said she was keen to see the planning processes be followed correctly, but also said she thought the McDonald's plans were not quite right for the Wongawilli area.
"This is a beautiful part of our local government area, and McDonald's isn't exactly renowned for sensitive design - I think we can do better," she said.
Asked to respond to residents' concerns McDonald's said its court proceedings were "in the interests of ensuring the application is fairly assessed on its merits, while allowing for continued engagement with Council and the community".
"A timetable for community engagement will be determined in accordance with the Court proceedings and we welcome the opportunity to discuss the proposed site with locals and hear their feedback," a spokesperson said.
"The development will generate approximately 200 jobs during construction and the McDonald's alone will create 100 new employment opportunities for Wollongong locals in fulltime, part-time and casual roles, once operational.
"The proposed Wongawilli development will also provide an initial estimated economic investment in excess of $10 million (including land acquisition) and support construction jobs during the build program. Additionally, employment opportunities provided by a McDonald's generates on average more than $1 million in employee wages annually.
"We believe the Wongawilli site provides an excellent opportunity for McDonald's to generate new employment, training, local community engagement and support."