Council accused of back-flip over saving heritage hotel
The community in Eden on the New South Wales far south coast had thought the local council had saved its heritage hotel from demolition by developers but now a newly elected council is looking at putting it back in the hands of private developers.
The 1906-built Hotel Australasia was sold to a developer in 2013 with plans for demolition and to use the site for a supermarket.
A community group lobbied for years to have it saved and looked like they had succeeded earlier this year when the Bega Valley Shire Council bought it and committed to restoring it.
The council allocated $1 million towards purchase and restoration.
Now, the newly elected council has stopped progress on the project and has invited private developers to take it over.
However, the town’s lobby group, Eden’s Australasia, said private developers could not be bound to the project’s aim to restore the heritage values.
A community group in Eden wants to restore the Hotel Australasia to its former glory (Peter Whiter)
Newly elected councillor, Robyn Bain, who tabled the motion, said she was not specifically targeting the hotel project but rather that she had campaigned on the platform of opposing the previous council’s purchasing of buildings.
“The previous council had gone about buying quite a lot of buildings, which was a distraction to the core business of local government,” Councillor Bain said.
“So it was incumbent of me to put that motion forward because I said that’s what I believed in.”
Cr Bain said she was not in dispute with the community that wished to save the building and stressed it was because of their years of lobbying that the hotel was still standing and had not been demolished.
“The issue that is under question is who pays? Is it the ratepayer, or is it private industry?”
The former mayor, Michael Britten, was not returned to council in its September elections and is now a member of Eden’s Australasia, the community group that has campaigned to restore the hotel.
Mr Britten said that the previous council’s plan was that it would recover the costs of its investment by either selling the hotel after its restoration, or from rental income.
However, Cr Bain said that she had never seen a business plan the supported that assertion.
Concerns that a private developer will avoid heritage objectives
The Eden’s Australasia group said that their major concern was the uncertainty that a private developer would stick to council’s plans to restore the heritage values of the building.
Mr Britten said that a developer would need to enter an agreement with the council to restore the building to the criteria detailed in the current project’s development application (DA).
“I don’t think you can enforce it. If the person sits and does nothing how do you say ‘I’m going to make you complete a DA that you undertook to do on this piece of land?'”
Mr Britten said that the only resolution would be to include a condition in the sale that if the person did not complete the work within a certain time limit then the council could re-purchase the property at market value.
Cr Bain, however, said that it was typical for councils to put “lots of caveats on lots of buildings”.
“The majority of people in this country comply to those restrictions.
“Can I absolutely, 100 per cent guarantee that a private developer will comply? No I can’t.
“But I can tell you that the majority of people would abide and do abide by a whole range of caveats.”
Restoration of the Hotel Australasia aims to recover the early look of the facade and celebrate the hotel’s role in the community’s history
Mr Britten stands by his view that the council can retain the building and control of the project and recover the costs.
He said the estimated restoration cost of $450,000 would be returned at auction of a restored hotel “quite easily”.
Further to that, he said that an area at the rear of the building comprising 38 car park spaces should be expanded and retained by council together with a laneway that runs up the side of the building.
“All of which are valued… at more than the actual original land purchase of $550,000.”
Founding member of Eden’s Australasia, Peter Whiter, shared the concern that the council would not be able to force a developer to stick with the restoration objectives as in the current DA.
He said a developer could submit “any number” of DA amendments.
“We all know what happens after the bottom line’s been signed and the cheque’s been cleared.”
Questions of conflict of interest refuted
Mr Whiter said he was concerned about potential conflicts of interest in the process but said: “I’m not sure that there is one. I’m not sure that there isn’t one.”
Mr Whiter said that prior to the EOI motion being tabled he had been called by a councillor about the proposed sale.
“The councillor who called me, and spoke to me about the wish to sell the property, mentioned to me that there were a couple of interested parties in buying the property and owning the building and doing up the facade.
“There was nothing mentioned in that as to the relationship,” Mr Whiter said.
Mr Britten said he was aware of questions and media reports but that he did not know enough to comment, other than he believed that if as a councillor “you discuss anything with a prospective developer making a submission or making a tender to council then you have to exclude yourself from voting.”
Cr Bain said she had heard four different bodies say that they were interested in taking over the project.
“I’ve listened to people talk about their ideas with the Hotel Australasia.
She said she had encouraged them to talk with the economic development part of the shire.
“That’s my role. It is a facilitating role. It doesn’t give me a conflict of interest.
“Part of a councillor’s role is to go out in the community and talk with them.
“Now, developers are part of the community, and an important part,” Cr Bain said.