Turtle Cove Haven Retirement Village development near endangered bird habitat at River Heads back tabletop

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A controversial proposal to develop a Queensland retirement village next to critically endangered bird habitat is back before Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley.

The proposal to build the Turtle Cove Haven Retirement Village has already been rejected on environmental grounds.

The village would be built near the coast at River Heads, across the Great Sandy Strait from K’gari (Fraser Island) in the Wide Bay Burnett area of ​​Queensland.

The Great Sand Strait is a declared Ramsar site, which means that it contains wetlands recognized as being of international importance under a United Nations convention.

But more importantly for conservationists, the sandy mud flats next to the proposed development are a crucial feeding ground for hungry Eastern Curlews at the end of their epic migration from as far away as Russia.

BirdLife Australia and the Queensland Wader Study oppose the latest proposed project, which is smaller and more set back from its previous iteration.

Andrew Hunter, of BirdLife Australia, said development will always have an impact on birds and called on the government to do everything in its power to protect the habitat.

Mr Hunter says more than 1,000 critically endangered Eastern Curlews have been seen roosting there.

Development proposal revised downwards

The proposal to build the retirement village was scaled back several times, with an original plan to build up to 500 independent living units later changed to less than half.

In rejecting this proposal in 2020, Ms Ley noted that the development would encroach on the 250-meter high astronomical tide (HAT) buffer zone, which was deemed too close to Eastern Curlew habitat in critical danger of extinction.

Now a third plan comprising 84 independent housing units, an on-site sewage treatment plant and internal roads has been submitted to the Federal Ministry of the Environment.

Eastern Curlews migrate great distances from China and Russia to Australia.(Getty Images: Ko Konno)

Since the proponents have submitted a new plan, the minister must now determine whether the new proposal will have a significant impact on an issue of national environmental importance.

If so, the proposal will be declared a Controlled and Evaluated Action under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

This could then result in the imposition of strict conditions on the development or the rejection of the development proposal.

According to the proponent’s (Anscape Pty Ltd) submission to the Minister, his latest proposal would now be “located at a distance of 250 meters from [the highest astronomical tide]”.

Andrew Hunter of BirdLife Australia says it’s still too close.

“They increased the buffer zone from 200 to 250 meters, but we don’t think that’s enough to mitigate the impacts on birds.”

Developers say the project will not impact shorebirds

Eastern curlew (Numenius madagascariensis) is the world’s largest migratory shorebird.

It breeds in China and Russia, then migrates to Australia around August.

Once considered abundant, global populations have collapsed since the 1980s.

Based on current trends, only 10 percent of the 1993 bird’s population levels will remain through 2035, according to the Endangered Species Recovery Center.

Habitat loss at key migratory stopping points in the Yellow Sea is considered a major reason for the decline.

But in Australia, coastal development is also considered a threat to the species.

However, Anscape director Brian Clarke, who is trying to get permission to develop the site, says he’s more than confident he can move forward without impacting the birds.

Mr. Clarke says he has spent thousands of dollars on environmental assessments over almost 10 years.

“We have reduced [the number of units] to 250 and this was pushed back again. Then we did it at 190, even though we got the public environmental report [PER] scientifically done, ”he said.

The environmental assessor Mr. Clarke employed to survey the site, Roger Currie of REMC, said a buffer zone of 100 to 150 meters from the birds would be more than sufficient.

“I spent five years studying the site. I observed the behavior of the curlew for five years and wrote a public environmental report that was a 1,400-page document,” he said.

Part of this research included Flight Initiation Distance Assessments (FIDS), which involve creating disturbance and measuring how far birds have taken flight.

“We also did an experiment with a tractor and a slasher and the tractor could go within 20 meters without disturbing the birds.”

Both Mr Currie and Mr Clarke said the 250-meter buffer zone was recommended to the minister by a researcher who had not visited the site.

The project has “become political football”

According to Mr. Clarke, the problem was that when he bought the property, there was an existing development approval on it.

But in the meantime, the EPBC law had come into effect, which meant that it was much more difficult to develop the property than it had been led to believe.

“I bought it based on the approvals given to me by the board,” he said.

“It has become political football. I’m 78 now, I had some heart problems. I’m just sick of fighting.”

Mr Clarke and Mr Currie also said they believed the project was being used as a scapegoat, while much larger and potentially damaging projects were approved.

“I think the minister needed an example, given that Adani had just been approved, that she would be tough on EPBC dismissals,” Currie said.

“Yes [the government] could approve a coal mine when CSIRO said “no we’re not convinced you should go ahead” how can you roll back a small retirement village in River Heads? “

‘Weak’ legislation cannot protect Australia’s biodiversity

Even minor disturbances to birds can cause major problems, according to environmentalist and policy researcher April Reside at the University of Queensland.

When they arrive after their migration from the northern hemisphere, they are hungry and have little energy to flee or find food, she says.

“When they do these massive intercontinental migrations, they are so hungry that they actually start to digest part of their food. [internal organs],” she said.

“They eat each other from the inside out.”

Black, gray and brown bird perched on a branch
Many species of birds in Australia, such as the black-throated finch, die of “death from a thousand cuts”.(ABC North Queensland: Hannah Palmer)

Robert Bush of the Queensland Wader Study Group says the group is opposed to development in its current form and that developers need to do more than the bare minimum to ensure habitat protection.

Development refusals upon referral from the EPBC have been extremely rare since the law came into force in 2000, according to Mr. Bush.

“The EPBC Act 1999 is extremely weak,” he said.

“You can count on two hands the number of projects that were turned down.

Dr Reside says many bird species in Australia, such as the black-throated finch found around the Adani coal mine development, die from a thousand cuts.

“There are a bunch of birds in Australia that are endangered or critically endangered and one of the problems is that they occupy a very large range,” she said.

“So the government looks and says’ this is a huge area, we’re just going to take a little bit of it, and then this little bit here.”

Mr. Bush says it’s a similar case for the Eastern Curlew.

“Australia’s two largest herds are found in the Great Sandy Strait, where this area is found, and in Moreton Bay.

“And these two herds are being challenged by development: one in Toondah Harbor by the Walker Corporation and the other up there.”

But Mr Currie said the developers did more than enough to get approval.

“This is the third referral and the third referral is based on the 250-meter buffer zone,” he said.

“There would be no reason for the minister not to approve it this time.”

A decision on whether the proposal will be a controlled action requiring assessment under the EPBC Act is expected to be made on November 23, a spokesperson for Ms Ley said.

“The minister will receive a detailed ministerial report before forming an opinion,” they said.

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