Explainer: Developing Toondah Harbour

Kate Fea

Occupying hectares of wetlands and housing hundreds of native species, Cleveland’s Toondah Harbour is an ecological haven, and developers want to cash in on it.

PHOTO: Toondah Harbour’s pristine wetlands at low tide (Source: Christie Gallois)

Covering 67 hectares of protected wetlands, and with sweeping views of Moreton Island, Toondah Harbour consists of 49.5 hectares of water and 17.5 hectares of land, all currently untouched by commercial development.

PHOTO: Brisbane’s Toondah Harbour (Source: Toondah Harbour)

Under former Queensland Premier Campbell Newman’s Economic Development Act 2012, and in the interest of economic development, Toondah Harbour was declared a Priority Development Area (PDA) on 21 June 2013 with Redland City Council’s consent.

Priority Development Areas are land precincts identified for development to deliver significant benefits to the community, granted upon federal approval, based on ‘overriding national interest’.  

As a Priority Development Area, Toondah Harbour’s Ramsar-listed wetlands must receive federal development approval, though are exempt from state environmental assessment, as PDAs can bypass old planning and environmental laws to fast-track new developments.

Having received the rights to develop the state and local government land at Toondah Harbour, Australian-based property development company Walker Corporation intend to develop the site into a tourism hub, transforming Toondah Harbour into what it describes as ‘destination in its own right’. 

Its $1.3 billion development proposal involves dredging over 32 hectares of natural wetlands to make way for 3600 high-rise residential apartments, a 400-berth marina, a hotel, shops, and a new ferry terminal to improve access to North Stradbroke Island.

PHOTO: Dredging the Fison Channel at Toondah Harbour (Source: Panthus)

Walker Corporation expects the development to boost the local economy, creating over 1000 temporary construction jobs, and 500 permanent on-site retail jobs once the commercial spaces are completed.

Redland City Mayor Karen Williams believes that developing Toondah Harbour will foster much needed regional tourism and employment, creating a bustling precinct where tourists and locals can live, work, shop and socialise.

The catch

The Toondah Harbour wetlands are internationally protected under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, an international treaty which aims to halt the worldwide loss of wetlands via established conservation management frameworks.

Under this environmental agreement, Toondah Harbour is recognised as a critical ecosystem, and as such, is ‘protected’ from commercial developments.

Walker Corporation lobbied former federal Minister for the Environment, Josh Frydenberg, to completely remove Toondah Harbour from the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands list in 2017, stressing that rezoning the precinct was matter of urgent national economic interest.

In December 2018, Frydenberg overruled advice from his environmental department’s scientists and subsequently progressed Walker’s development proposal to the next stage of federal assessment, stating that it was not ‘approval’ for the development, but an ‘opportunity for proper assessment’ under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

While Toondah Harbour remains listed as a Ramsar site, Walker Corporation is expected to seek exemptions by undertaking an Environmental Impact Assessment, a draft of which will be released for public comment by the end of the year.

Though the government stipulates that the proposed developments must be consistent with the international wetland convention’s framework, not all groups are on board with the idea of any development.

IMAGE: Mangroves at South Toondah Harbour (Source: Panthus

Environmental impacts

Toondah Harbour is not only renowned as one of Australia’s top migratory sites for shorebirds, but is a critical ecosystem for threatened wildlife, including koalas, humpback dolphins, whales, dugongs, and loggerhead sea turtles.

Every summer, 32 species of international shorebirds, including 50% of the world’s grey-tailed tattlers and 20% of all eastern curlews, migrate to Moreton Bay’s Toondah Harbour precinct to feed, breed and rest following their long-haul, trans-pacific migration.

Walker Corporation’s developments would remove around half a million cubic metres of sea bed and wetlands, which environmental groups fear would disturb birds’ migration patterns, cull native species and expose acid sulphate soils, potentially creating toxic algal blooms which can destroy ecosystems.

Locals and environmental groups are primarily focussed on the development’s potential ecological impacts and likely disruption to shorebird migration. Furthermore, Debbie Pointing of The Koala Action group is worried that increased traffic, pollution, noise and tree lopping will devastate Toondah Harbour’s natural ecosystem and destroy last of the koalas’ coastal habitats.

PHOTO: Bar-tailed godwits in flight (Source: Allan Drewit)

Indigenous mobs and environmental groups speak out

There are four Indigenous mobs (clans) living around the Ramsar site, with many places for women’s business, fishing rituals and sacred sites in the area. Local traditional elder Norman Enoch says the majority of Indigenous people are strongly opposed to the development, though their local voices are not being adequately represented.

Various environmental groups, including The Koala Action Group, Act for Birds, Community Run and the Australian Conservation Foundation have set up online petitions which have attracted over 20,000 signatures, lobbying for the Palaszczuk government to revoke the Toondah Harbour Priority Development Area and uphold the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, labelling any development as a failure to honour international treaty obligations.

What do the local state candidates think about developing Toondah Harbour?

Claire Richardson, Independent

Oodgeroo independent candidate Claire Richardson says she is opposed to Walker’s proposed residential and commercial development on Toondah Harbour, expressing a range of planning, community, and environmental concerns around how the development approval process has progressed.

“The current proposals don’t include any upgrades to other transport networks and facilities, such as schools and hospitals in the area, but what they are proposing is almost a ten per cent increase in the Redland’s population with this project, so there is no real strategic planning around the current proposal.”

 She says that there is community consensus that the North Stradbroke Island ferry terminal must be upgraded, but there is limited support for the residential development.

“We are being told that we have to have this development to do that [upgrade the ferry terminal] and I can’t reconcile those two facts.”

“People in the community are really puzzled as to why we are going to give away a very important piece of coastline to a developer to do this, and to fund what is actually not a high-cost upgrade to the port.”

If elected, she will lobby the Federal government to reject the Toondah Harbour EIS on ecological environmental grounds, push for the Development Plan for the Toondah PDA to be amended to prohibit the construction of new land in marine environments, and amend the Canals Act to refuse canal development, in line with Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales’ legislation.

Ms Richardson hopes to urgently fast-track the ferry terminal upgrade, which will generate immediate construction jobs and help North Stradbroke Island’s economic transition in the midst of COVID-19 and the recent sand mining events, which saw over 100 jobs lost on the Island last year.

Ian Mazlin, The Greens

Greens candidate Ian Mazlin strenuously opposes Walker Corporation’s development proposal, and notes it was one of the main reasons he decided to stand. 

“Environmentally, it would destroy precious wetlands used by our beautiful migratory shore birds, destroy feeding grounds of turtles and dugongs, and dump tons of acid sulphate rich soil in the bay.”

The Greens have consistently opposed Walker’s proposed development, demanding ‘local democracy and putting people ahead of developer profits.’

“This development would involve an extra 8,000 to 10,000 people on the site. We have insufficient infrastructure like schools and health services and even sewage.”

“There would be massively increased strain on our already clogged roads and overcrowded public transport systems. The construction itself would massively impact on local quality of life.”

Mr Mazlin says the proposed development violates Toondah Harbour’s Convention on Wetlands’ commitment to conservation and emphasises that the government has not met Ramsar’s criteria to preserve these areas.

“Protecting the environment needn’t be at the expense of the local economy. Economic prosperity can go hand in hand with preserving heritage.”

If elected, he will push to increase royalties on mining corporations, limit political donations, and invest in public services and infrastructure.

Irene Henley, Australian Labor Party

Irene Henley of the Australian Labor Party did not respond to our media enquiry, though past articles report her comments that a review of the proposed project was needed, as not enough information on the project had been made available.

“The wetlands at the proposed Toondah Harbour site are protected by Ramsar treaty and it is very important for us to protect that,” Ms Henley said in an interview with the Courier Mail.

With a background in nursing, she advised that “If we do continue with significant construction, we need to work with the universities for research to look at the health of our population now and how it is exposed to construction and building”.

“We are now waiting for a decision to come down from the Federal Government, but I do have strategies in place for whether the project goes ahead or not,” she said.

If elected, she hopes to ‘future proof’ Queensland by creating local jobs, supporting local business, and rebuilding the manufacturing industry in Oodgeroo.  

Mark Robinson, Liberal National Party

LNP’s Mark Robinson has held the Oodgeroo seat since 2009, and though he did not respond to our media enquiry, his policies firmly support Walker’s development of Toondah Harbour.

His ‘Toondah Harbour Update’ article emphasises he is proud of Walker Group’s Toondah Harbour project that the LNP’s Priority Development Area legislation has produced, calling it a “long-awaited development”.

“I have spoken about the need for a major upgrade of Toondah Harbour—one that would improve the ferry facilities to North Stradbroke Island for residents and tourists, and include a marina and mixed commercial and residential development,” he said in Queensland Parliament.

“This LNP project provides a new Redlands tourism destination, a gateway to Stradbroke Island and Moreton Bay.”

He says it will create an enhanced waterfront lifestyle and community, which respects and conserves the local recreational and environmental values.  

Mr Robinson says that the $1.3 billion LNP project will create 1,000 jobs per year in the construction stage and hundreds of jobs in tourism and small business afterwards, with a focus on boosting the local economy.

If re-elected, Mr Robinson will continue to drive Walker Corporation’s development of Toondah Harbour, focussing on Queensland’s economic recovery to encourage tourism, create and protect jobs, and reduce the cost of living.

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