Australia — Waterfront homeowners can legally chop down trees blocking million-dollar harbour views in some of Sydney’s most sought-after residential areas, under controversial vegetation clearing laws introduced for bushfire zones.
Residents have already started cutting down trees, including 100-year-old angophoras, at a rate of 10 a day in Pittwater, according to mayor Jacqueline Townsend.
“There are concerns there are going to be great big bald patches right up the escarpment,” Ms Townsend said.
There are also fears the leafy suburbs of Mosman, Hornsby, Lane Cove and Beecroft, which have all been designated to be in bushfire zones, will be denuded by homeowners using the legislation to their own advantage.
The new 10/50 vegetation clearing code of practice from the Rural Fire Service, which came into effect this month, allows people across NSW living within 350 metres of designated bushfire-prone areas to clear trees on their property within 10 metres of a home without seeking approval. Shrubs can also be removed within 50 metres of a home. It makes no distinction between bushland and urban areas.
Mosman deputy mayor Roy Bendall has criticised the laws and said more councils – especially the urban ones – will be jumping up and down when the reality hits.
“I don’t know how this got through,” said Mr Bendall.
“There are no checks and balances. You don’t even have to put in a letter to the Rural Fire Service first – you just sharpen the chainsaw.
“They [RFS] have taken a blanket approach and whatever is good for areas like the Blue Mountains is not necessarily good for highly populated areas.
“I don’t blame people for trying to improve their views. It has the potential to add half a million dollars to the price of a home in Mosman.”
Greens MP David Shoebridge said the new laws have already led to a critically endangered remnant rainforest being cleared on a property at Fingal Head on the north coast.
Nationals MP Geoff Provest, whose electorate of Tweed includes Fingal Head, said he feared the policy could be used “for other purposes” although he agreed with its intent. He has asked Tweed Shire Council to prepare a report setting out its concerns and a list of recommendations for Emergency Services Minister Stuart Ayres.
The Greens have requested an urgent intervention from Environment Minister Rob Stokes asking him to suspend the 10/50 vegetation clearing scheme in relation to any land containing critically endangered littoral rainforest and coastal vine thickets of eastern Australia.
Mr Stokes’ office referred questions to Mr Ayres, who directed inquiries to the Rural Fire Service.
Mr Shoebridge said councils including Mosman are seeking exemptions for urban areas.
The Greens MP questioned NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons at budget estimates last week on what he was going to do about it.
Mr Fitzsimmons told the hearing: “The feedback I have had is not that people are doing it but there is a concern that they might.”
He said councils were in discussion with the RFS and “we are having a look through what their concerns might be”.
The Nature Conservation Council of NSW said the changes were “bad policy”.
“If everybody exercised their rights under this rule, it would result in losses of canopy cover in some local government areas of more than 50 per cent,” NCC chief executive Kate Smolski said.
“While to the lay person the 10/50 rule might sound like a good idea, fire experts know it is bad policy. It has been poorly thought out and will potentially have very negative unintended consequences,” Ms Smolski said.
Ms Townsend said the council had been managing the fire risk well with strict controls.
“This legislation was adopted from Victoria but the difference is that in Victoria they excluded a number of urban suburbs,” she said.
Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said local councils had identified areas that were bushfire prone and the RFS applied the 350-metre buffer to those areas.
“If they’re not bushfire prone, maybe that should have been looked at before,” he said.
He said the RFS had committed to reviewing the code within the next 12 months.
“We’ll certainly listen to councils but that has to be done in such a way that provides a good outcome for everybody,” Mr Rogers said.
“We don’t walk away from the fact that quite a lot of people that lost their homes in fires last year expressed concern to government about their inability to remove vegetation to protect their property.”
The policy does not allow trees to be removed if other restrictions apply, such as land management agreements entered into under the National Parks and Wildlife Act, the Threatened Species Conservation Act or the Native Vegetation Act.