We’re sorry, this feature is currently unavailable. We’re working to restore it. Please try again later.
By Julie Power
A long-delayed North Coast development sprang from the same drawing board as the nation’s capital. Credit:Fairfax Media
It was envisaged as the New York of Australia more than a hundred years ago. Now, a group of architects, planners and mum and dad investors are working together to turn the tiny town of North Arm Cove at Port Stephens into the next Canberra or Castlecrag.
A masterplan for the site was drawn 105 years ago by American architect and urban planner Walter Burley Griffin, famous for designing the bushy capital of Canberra and the even bushier suburb of Castlecrag on Sydney’s north shore.
Today the outline of the subdivision from 1918 can be seen in satellite photos. “It looks like a lost Mayan city,” says architect Tatjana Djuric-Simovic. “It looks like a subdivision that is not a grid, that follows the topography, but there are no houses.”
Djuric-Simovic, a planner, and her husband, Dejan Simovic of Sydney’s DESIM architecture firm were commended at a conference in Britain last year for “Back to the Future” – a proposal to finally bring Walter Burley Griffin’s dream of Port Stephens City to life.
Mid Coast Council has told residents that developing the area would be prohibitively expensive, but the Simovics envisage a sustainable and regenerative bush-like community that would reduce these costs. It would be off the grid, reduce carbon emissions, and manage water use and sewage using grey water and other systems.
Over the years, many have bought into the North Arm Cove dream only to lose hope and money. Located about 200 kilometres north of Sydney and on the northern shore of Port Stephens, it is a paper subdivision, perhaps the largest in NSW.
Of the 3500 lots there, about 3000 are rated non-urban. That means the estimated 2800 owners of these non-urban blocks can’t build on the land. They can’t even stay on the land other than to camp or caravan, and that is limited to two consecutive nights, and only 60 days a year.
Many bought without being told that they would have to pay council rates, despite the absence of electricity, sewer, finished roads or drainage.
Walter Burley GriffinCredit:Fairfax Media
Over the years, “desperate and disillusioned owners” of more than a thousand lots of non-urban land stopped paying rates. These properties were acquired by council in lieu of outstanding rates.
There are only a few hundred homes that are zoned residential in North Arm Cove, which doesn’t have town sewer or a shop.
These homes have seen prices soar. Because of their scarcity value, land values of the homes zoned residential are about 10 times greater than the blocks abutting them that are zoned non-urban. A non-urban block, zoned RU2 Rural Landscape, has a land value of $32,500, according to the Valuer General. In contrast, the land on the lot next to it, zoned RU5-village with a detached home, is valued at $345,000.
The owners of the non-urban lots say the capital costs of the infrastructure needed to develop their blocks, which they expect to fund, would be more than covered by the increased value of the land.
Stella Maris Cuerva, and her husband, Manuel, bought into the North Arm Cove dream in 1997, paying $12,000 for a small lot with water views.
After seeing an advertisement promoting it as a “piece of paradise”, the couple, then in their 40s, visited the site.
“It was a lovely place, it was flat land, near the water, and near the highway. We fell in love,” said Cuerva.
The Cuervas thought it was the ideal place to retire, and were told council planned to revisit its rezoning by 2016.
Unlike other buyers, the couple knew it wasn’t zoned residential but were told it would happen in 15 to 20 years. “It was perfect, we are going to retire, and we will have a place,” Cuerva aid. They named their block, Hope.
“I have been talking to people like us, who bought their land 40 to 50 years ago,” said Cuerva. “They were saying the same things, they were told two years [for rezoning], 10 years, it never happened.”
Because the zoning hasn’t changed, the Cuervas, now in their 60s, can’t afford to retire. “That’s why we are still working. ”
Over the past century, many mum and dad investors also purchased these non-urban lots in the hope that the land would be rezoned, and they’d make a windfall. Around the turn of the century, some people were given a lot in a paper subdivision when they purchased a suit.
Stella Maris Cuerva camping on the property she called Hope.
They were not told it was a gift that would keep on costing them council rates.
Changing the zoning of antiquated paper subdivisions, around 10,000 lots many dating back to the late 19th century, requires a mastery of labyrinthine rules, patience and money.
Changes to legislation 10 years ago has so far only resulted in the rezoning of a paper subdivision in Riverstone, which the NSW government championed.
Any change requires a majority of landholders by number and land area agree to any development, and share the costs.
A shortage of housing on the Central Coast has prompted councils to investigate the potential of paper subdivisions. Wyee Point, a historical subdivision created 130 years ago, is in the process of being rezoned to provide affordable housing.
A spokesperson for Mid Coast Council said the issue of non-urban land at North Arm Cove had a long and complex history.
During the development of its new rural strategy, it received 431 submissions, 65 per cent from owners of these lots. Most opposed the inclusion of these lots in a conservation zone
because it would stop them building on the land.
Council’s paper said many lots were too small to build on, and advocated consolidation.
Cuerva says she finally has some new hope. She is part of a North Arm Cove Landowners group with the Simovics, who are also owners of a lot where they camp regularly.
Visiting Castlecrag in Sydney’s north a week ago, the Simovics were full of hope that North Arm Cove could develop in a similar way. “It could be like this, and without the black and grey roofs of most suburbs,” said Tatyana.
The topography and design of North Arm Cove is similar to Castlecrag. Both locations have lots irregularly shaped to maximise the water views, the roads followed the topography of the hills, paths and parks were designed to encourage locals to enjoy nature, the bush was left largely intact, and places for schools and a community centre were identified.
Tatjana, a member of the Walter Burley Griffin society, said Griffin and his wife, Marion, an architect, had many talents. “They were building communities, they called themselves botanists too, and they loved Australia’s nature. They couldn’t stand European roses, red brick roofs, and fences.”
Dejan Simovic and Tatjana Djuric-Simovic have a plan to bring Griffin’s vision into the 21st century.Credit:Edwina Pickles
She said the Griffins dreamt of a “vision of a new type of suburbia – one that celebrated the natural Australian environment rather than being embarrassed by its non-Europeaness.”
In a paper for the Walter Burley Griffin society, Tatjana wrote that “Griffin’s poetry of the gum trees – and architecture that appeals to the soul – could be brought to life at North Arm Cove with the adoption of property development standards and heritage conservation controls.”
She said that Griffin envisaged North Arm Cove with the deep Port Stephens as the starting point for a metropolis like New York City.
So why should this new group succeed where others have failed to successfully win support for rezoning?
David Buxton, a landowner and president-elect for the North Arm Cove Ratepayers Association, said attitudes had changed. “People want to live near the water. The COVID-led migration from main cities to coastal areas and work-from-home alternatives has driven new planning objectives for both state and local authorities. Indeed, the latest release of the Hunter Regional Plan asks for more investigation into North Arm Cove as a viable rezoning opportunity.”
He said the group now had supporters who were willing to spend the money – approximately $500,000 – to prepare the plans required for submission to the state government.
“This is the first time in history that the costs can be covered,” said Buxton.
Simovic said the opportunities that North Arm Cove provided now far outweighed constraints. “North Arm Cove will not stay separate from civilisation forever,” he said.
Progress in an area only 30 minutes from Newcastle and even closer to the international airport was inevitable, he said.
Other proposals for similar developments nearby faced serious comparative disadvantages to North Arm Cove – such as being located in the flight path, and problems with flooding or coastal erosion.
“Given the number of crises that the area is facing – fires, flooding, demographics, low income, unemployment, housing affordability, brain drain, etc. – there is no question that something should be done sooner rather than later. ”
Simovic’s other secret weapon? His wife. “Tatjana’s two decades experience in NSW’s strategic planning. And her MENSA membership,” he said of his partner in the practice and in life.
Until recently, Tatjana was a very senior strategic planning officer with the NSW government and a range of councils, including Sydney City.
The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.
Copyright © 2023