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Friday, 28 April 2023 22:21

Westleigh Park development

In Issues 217 and 219 of STEP Matters there was some information about the proposals for development by Hornsby Council of the land known as Westleigh Park.

The Save Westleigh Park group has been engaging with the local community explaining the draft plans that have been put out for consultation. Very few locals are aware of this significant development. It is very disappointing that council has not even put up signs in the local shopping centre to alert the locals. This development will have major impacts as there is currently only one road providing access to this major sporting complex with three fields. Does council expect people to be constantly on social media looking for local news?

The draft Master Plan and Plan of Management were approved for exhibition by councillors at the 8 March meeting. Four weeks was provided for submissions with closing date of 9 April for the draft Master Plan and 23 April for the Plan of Management.

Mountain bike trails to remain in the endangered forests

The biggest bone of contention has always been the illegal mountain bike trails in the large bushland area that totals 26 ha. This bushland includes areas of critically endangered Sydney Turpentine Ironbark Forest (STIF) and endangered Duffys Forest, totalling 9 ha plus several threatened species in other areas. The trails were built by the mountain bikers while the land was owned by Sydney Water and have been expanded since. They have named the complex network zigzagging through the bushland as H2O MTB Trails.

In 2021 council exhibited a preliminary master plan that proposed that most of the trails in the endangered forest be removed or relocated to the edges. Trails in the other bushland would remain and be upgraded to conform to industry standards. This caused an outraged reaction from the mountain bike community.

Council held a series of workshops to try to establish a consensus between the opposing groups of mountain bikers and local community and conservation groups. This was never going to happen. We waited with bated breath to see the final proposals that Council would come up with.

No doubt there was much lobbying going on behind the scenes. The conservationists group, now called Save Westleigh Park, were horrified to see that council was proposing to retain some of the trails and even build some new ones in the endangered forest areas. A specialist trail building company had been brought in to advise on a network that would be a ‘good experience’ and cover a range of abilities from beginner to advanced.

The total length of trails would be reduced from 9.5 to 7.3 km. The trails in STIF would be reduced from 2.45 to 0.96 km and in Duffys Forest from 1.9 to 1.5 km. However some of these trails would be new so more damage to the bushland, including the endangered forests, would be incurred.

The continuation of trails in the endangered ecological communities goes against all the principles of conservation. Council claims they are observing the Biodiversity Conservation Act hierarchy of avoid, minimise and mitigate, but they will have to resort to the last stage and try to find offsets for the loss of integrity of the forests. The STIF is critically endangered which means the forest is on the brink of extinction. There are only small areas left so suitable offsets are not available and the net effect will be a loss of healthy STIF.

Not only will the trails remain in the forest but the general public will be excluded from their use. The only consolation is a walking track that is only 150 m long plus a shared path around the boundary between the bushland and the sporting fields.

The Master Plan also does not specify when and how council will close down the trails that are to be removed and undertake the rehabilitation to undo the damage already done.

Risks to endangered ecological communities

STEP’s submission on the Master Plan focussed on the risks posed by the building and use of bikes through endangered ecological communities that threaten their survival. These include:

  • disruption of pollination
  • soil compaction that damages fungal diversity and spore dispersal
  • edge effects that change growing conditions such as light, humidity and wind
  • introduction of pathogens

By allowing these trails to continue council is evading its responsibilities under the Biodiversity Conservation Act to protect these forests.

Other issues

There are other concerns about the Master Plan many of them related to the plans to squeeze three sporting fields into the cleared areas.

The draft Plan suggests that the middle sporting field that is designed for soccer could be synthetic grass. This is highly inappropriate for an area so close to the bushland.

It is also proposed to build a link trail through the Dog Pound Creek biobanking site to the Hornsby Quarry site. This area is another critically endangered ecological community and a biobanking site. It must be protected from pathogens that could be introduced by the movement of bicycles. There is already evidence of Phytophera infestation. It is intended to close this link from use by walkers so they will lose the experience of a spectacular area of Blue Gum Diatreme Forest.

The whole development is large enough to cater for regional needs, not just local needs. Hornsby Council has received a large grant ($40 million) but this is not sufficient to cover the huge cost of the project. Rate payers will be covering much of the cost.

One major cost is the need to remove the contaminants such as asbestos and heavy metals that have arisen from the use of the site as a tip and fire-fighting training ground. These are to be localised and buried under concrete. Will this be effective? The fields will then need to be levelled which involves building up the south-west corner by 8.5 m.

Funding is not available for the whole project so it will be done in stages. The removal of the mountain bike trails in the endangered ecological communities and rehabilitation of the weed infested bushland should be a priority.