From Canberra Times 6 April 2013

Brumbies chief executive Andrew Fagan can be well pleased with Simon Corbell’s decision to use his ministerial call-in powers to approve a development application by the club to build a large apartment complex in Griffith. Final approval for the DA had been more or less a foregone conclusion after the ACT Legislative Assembly Planning Committee recommended in February 2012 that it proceed, subject to certain conditions.

However, the Brumbies – anxious to begin moves to establish new club and training facilities at the University of Canberra – wanted a quicker result and lobbied the Sustainable Development Minister accordingly. Since the development would have what he termed a ”substantial public benefit”, Mr Corbell thought it ”appropriate” to use his call-in powers.

That he did so was not surprising. The ACT government has long been sympathetic to efforts by the Brumbies to establish a lasting presence in the ACT, albeit one the club believes should reflect its status and reputation as a powerhouse of the competition and big drawcard in Canberra. Indeed, the fact that other Super 15 franchises reportedly have superior facilities to the Brumbies has long been a concern to management, and this, together with the need to put the club on a sounder financial footing, has been a constant refrain of Mr Fagan.

The club first sought to capitalise on its prime inner south location (which includes the old Canberra South Bowling and Recreation Club) in 2010. It lodged an application with the ACT Planning and Land Authority to vary the Territory Plan to permit the development of 150 apartments in order to fund the development of an enlarged club headquarters, gymnasium and other income-producing commercial properties. The draft variation involved rezoning part of the site from leisure and accommodation to medium density residential use, and the removal of a concessional lease clause setting the land aside for community purposes. The Brumbies also proposed enclosing Griffith Oval No. 1, and as a result the plan encountered stiff opposition from local residents. In the event, ACTPLA rejected the rezoning proposal, saying it would compromise the site’s heritage values. Undaunted, the Brumbies resubmitted slightly less ambitious plans in 2012, having begun negotiations with the University of Canberra about the same time to move their rugby operations from Griffith to the university’s Bruce campus.

Despite arguments that the revised development is out of scale and out of character in a suburb of largely free-standing single-storey dwellings with gardens, many Griffith residents resigned themselves long ago to the fact it would probably get the necessary approval. Not only is it a proposal that accords directly with the government’s belief that more medium-density development is needed in the inner suburbs to satisfy demand and to limit urban sprawl, but it is in line with Labor’s desire to offer greater housing choice in Canberra. That said, approval is subject to the developer meeting stringent conditions relating to environmental and traffic issues.

In fast-tracking the approval process, however, the government has left itself open to charges that it has bestowed another favour on an organisation that has been the recipient over the years of millions of taxpayer dollars in government payments, loans and payroll tax waivers. The Brumbies will be liable for a change-of-use charge for this development, but the fact is that it will profit significantly from the rezoning of land originally set aside for the recreational use of the wider community. That this land came into the Brumbies’ ”possession” by circumstance – and at no cost – only reinforces perceptions that it has scored a very good deal at the expense of the amenity of Griffith residents and of the wider community more generally.

That approval of this DA has been fast-tracked by the minister will result, inevitably, in perceptions that the Raiders will expect (and receive) similar treatment should they proceed with any attempt to redevelop Braddon Oval.

To the extent that the Griffith deal (and the public subsidies) helps the Brumbies become a permanent feature of Canberra’s sporting landscape, the ACT community will indeed derive benefits, the more so if the team continues its winning ways. But, in paving the way for the sporting franchise’s growth, the government has a responsibility to residents most affected by the consequences of that success to ensure the direct impact is managed.

 

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