Threat to platypus raised in court as Fortnum Property appeal Calderwood Valley expansion refusal
It's one of the fastest growth areas in New South Wales, but community members and Landcare groups are concerned a further expansion of the Calderwood Valley in the Illawarra region will threaten a local platypus habitat.
More than a decade ago the state government granted permission for 4,800 homes to be built in an area close to Albion Park, then known mostly for dairy farming.
So far around 1,200 homes have been built, but a revised plan on the area's western edge for 227 homes along the Macquarie Rivulet is causing alarm.
Ruth Jenkins from the Tullimbar Landcare group said it was disappointing to see the project also spread across the river in the plans.
"They haven't taken into consideration the aquatic life in the river, they have not done any studies on the platypus known to live in the river," Ms Jenkins said.
In 2017, Fortnum Property lodged an application for the project that was refused by Shellharbour Council, and in 2021 it lodged a revised application that was also refused.
In its refusal, the council raised concerns about flooding, the use of 138,500 tonnes of fill material across the site, pedestrian and vehicle access, and public and open spaces.
It was also concerned by the developer's decision not to reveal the type of material it planned to use for the fill.
The project also includes plans for a bridge crossing across the Macquarie Rivulet, joining a new road in the proposed development to the Illawarra Highway.
The developer is challenging Shellharbour Council's 2021 decision in the NSW Land and Environment Court (LEC), and the commissioner conducted a site inspection this week.
Ms Jenkins told the court hearing, held in the Calderwood Valley estate sales office, that the proposal failed to acknowledge the existence of the platypus.
"We should be protecting what native species we have along the river," she said.
"The platypus spends a lot of time foraging in the river and all the dust created by the construction and disruption of sediment will impact the habitat — [the developers] are not going to be able to stop it."
Resident Jess Whittaker also lodged an objection to the project and raised concerns about how it would impact the riparian zone, which is the interface between land and a river.
"To landscape up to the edge of the rivulet without a plan for the ecology is not appropriate and it needs to be reviewed," she told the court.
"The platypus is an iconic species, it is not endangered, but it is in decline and this project threatens its habitat through land clearing and disturbs the natural water flow — which will happen if you approve the major bridge included in the project."
She said the use of infill could also be detrimental to the flow of the river and its wildlife.
"Regardless of what type the infill is, it's going to cause torpidity and disrupt the water flow and cause damage," Ms Whittaker said.
"The impact on the river could push the platypus further up the catchment or out of the area, just because we are too selfish or silly to look for another way of doing things."
Landcare Illawarra Chair Emma Rooksby told the court she also had serious concerns about "critical gaps in the development application (DA) — including the lack of impact assessment on riparian water and in particular the platypus".
Ms Rooksby said without a report on the impact of the project on the riparian zone it would be impossible for the court to evaluate the DA and its environmental impact.
"The Macquarie Rivulet is the place in the Illawarra where platypus remain," she said. 
"This area is the known stronghold of platypus in this region and therefore it needs to be taken very seriously and protected."
Ms Rooksby was also concerned landscape design plans showed play areas intruding into the core riparian area and identified an Asset Protection Zone, or bushfire protection zone, within the core riparian area.
Fortnum Property was contacted for comment.
The ABC's request was forwarded to the Rawson Group, which said as the matter was listed for hearing at the Land and Environment Court it was inappropriate to comment at this time.
Shellharbour Council also declined to comment while the matter was before the court.
The LEC is considering the application.
Landcare and bushcare volunteers said they hoped the situation would force the council to officially identify platypus habitats in the region.
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