Court hands ACU victory over $55 million expansion, despite residents' protests and PAC ruling

Lawyer David Baird, and residents' leader Jane Pistolese and Mark Phillipps

The Land and Environment Court today handed the Australian Catholic University a victory over the long campaign by residents to halt its Strathfield expansion plans.

The two-year battle to stop the $55 million expansion on the heritage site took a major blow, with residents’ leaders Jane Pistolese and Mark Phillips distraught.

But the battle is far from over, as the ACU still has to submit detailed plans to the Joint Regional Planning Panel in a development assessment process.

Residents went into an immediate meeting with Strathfield Council lawyer David Baird to dissect the judgement. Councillors are due to be briefed at a planning meeting later today.

Despite the fact that residents had won over the Planning Assessment Commission, which ordered a block on the expansion of buildings and student numbers, the Land and Environment Court allowed the appeal by the ACU.

In the judgment, Commissioners Judy Fakes and Susan O’Neill found that the “wider public benefits associated with the best possible use of existing educational facilities” put forward by the ACU’s Concept Plan wins out against Council’s contention that expansion should be blocked to protect the amenity of residents.

However, they found that the ACU’s expansion should be tempered by the diversion of students to alternative ways to driving to commute to campus. The Commissioners also found that although the Concept Plan broadly has an acceptable impact on the heritage significance of the site but this acceptability “is subject to the detailed assessment to be made during the development assessment process for each development proposal.”

And while residents rallied for more onsite parking to alleviate student parking on surrounding streets, the Court reasoned that increasing parking spaces on the campus may “encourage more people to drive.”

“On the face of it, it’s not all that encouraging,” Mr Baird said. He added it looked as though the judgment effectively reinstated the Planning Department’s initial approval of the expansion.

Despite this initial disappointment, the Court found that a “number of Council’s contentions will be more appropriately dealt with during the development assessment process.”

Strathfield Council has said, "Whilst approving the concept proposal the Court has imposed strict conditions on the ACU which if carried out will result in a net improvement to the amenity to the long suffering resident neighbours. The Court has also accepted Council's contention that the proposed library in precinct 1 should be reduced in bulk and has only allowed the ACU to build to 85% of the proposed envelope presented to the Court.

Mayor of Strathfield Gulian Vaccari has stated "whilst Council may not have achieved all the points that it sought to argue, on balance the decision represents a significant win for the community in terms of traffic outcomes and urban design.  I am deeply grateful to the residents who have stood by Council and have supported our staff and legal team in fighting this matter."

Previous consents for the site allowed for 750 students on the campus at any one time, though this number does not correlate with the number of students which are actually onsite.

Residents maintain the university has consistently exceeded these numbers, and that no-one really knows how many students are on site at any one time.

Surveys conducted in May 2012 found that the number of people on campus exceeded 1400.

Under the Control Plan, the ACU wants to eventually increase this number to 2200 people.

Mrs Pistolese, who has spearheaded the battle against the university’s expansion says she’s “flat” after the apparent loss.

Councillor Daniel Bott said his initial reaction is one of disappointment but will need a more detailed briefing on the verdict before he can comment on the outcome.

State MP Charles Casuscelli said he was also disappointed by the result.

The ACU are also considering the implications of the decision.

ACU Associate Vice-Chancellor Professor Marea Nicholson hopes to work with Strathfield Council to develop the campus in a manner that best reflects its heritage.

“As a member of the local community, ACU has an ongoing commitment to working with Strathfield Council and the local residents to provide a place of learning that reflects the history of the site and embraces the future of education in the Catholic intellectual tradition,” she said.

The Heritage Council of NSW is considering listing the site, and has already expressed concerns over the expansion.


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