Geoff Helisma |
With the threat of a loss in the land and environment court looming large if a development application (DA) to open a brothel in Townsend was knocked back, councillors approved the application at last week’s Clarence Valley Council (CVC) meeting.
Two councillors, Peter Ellem and Greg Clancy, voted against the decision, which was approved as tabled, apart from varying the brothels’ operating hours from 10am–2am, to 10am–midnight seven-days a week.
Councillors were wary of the issue being embroiled in court action because the development complies with the local environment plan (LEP), development control plan (DCP) and relevant planning regulations.
During questions before debate, Environment, Planning & Community director Des Schroder advised councillors that there was a possibility that the change to hours of operation could be challenged.
He said that a court case would cost at least $20,000 and “more like $30,000 or $40,000” if an expert witness was called.
He said if the DA wasn’t approved and it went to court, “the issue” would have to be defended on “planning grounds”, not moral or religious grounds.
Thirty submissions and nine petitions (containing 447 signatures) against the DA were received during the DA’s public exhibition; one submission was in support.
Objections included: moral, ethical and religious issues; devaluation of nearby properties; potential for increased crime; proximity to several residences; apparent disagreement with the valley’s community strategic plan (CVCSP); and, potential impact on students attending a nearby gym.
Each of these issues was dismissed on planning grounds by the council officer.
“Comments were received” from the NSW Police and there was “no objection to the development”, the report to council stated.
Councillor Peter Ellem read from prepared notes. “I am not religious, nor am I a wowser, but I have wrestled with this application … because it goes against my core personal values, values which I cannot compromise,” he said.
He said that planning officers had “brushed aside” concerns raised – such as “children living in two of the three homes located” near the site and the “Pacific Valley Christian School and all the toddlers’ centres just down the road”.
“Are they merely collateral damage?” he said.
On the submissions, he said the report to council “respected” them, “but then minimises them as ‘matters raised are not those for debate’ because they were ‘based on moral, ethical and religious values and beliefs’.
He acknowledged the threat and costs of ending up in court and said “this generally makes for timid councils more likely to fold to inappropriate development than stand up for their local communities”.
“I have checked my moral compass and I cannot put my name next to brothel that detracts from rather than lifts the community standards currently enjoyed by the residents of Townsend and surrounds,” he said.
Councillor Andrew Baker said “if the land and environment court cannot override” the planning laws on moral, ethical or religious grounds, “it would be wrong of us to try and find a way to step around our own planning principles”.
“We should allow the community to trust us to follow our own LEP,” he said.
Councillor Arthur Lysaught said we “are also here to manage our ratepayers’ funds”
“From a business perspective I can’t see the sense in throwing away 20 or $30,000 on a case you can’t win,” he said.
He said he would reluctantly vote for the DA, but added “the last thing I would want near my kids or grandkids is a brothel … I’ve wrestled with this since it came to us”.
Councillor Greg Clancy said the three residences within the 100 metre exclusion zone and several others just outside of it were reasons to be careful.
“Under the CVCSP we cannot approve in an area children regularly visit,” he said.
Councillor Karen Toms said children were already exposed to sex services in residential zones under the LEP.
“Make no mistake there is a moral issue, and I have high morals, but I’m basing my decision on planning issues,” she said.
She pointed out that under the LEP two sex workers can work in residential zones without consent.
Mayor Jim Simmons said he “could well and truly” vote against the DA on moral or religious grounds, however, he would vote for it because planning officers said it met planning requirements.
Councillor Debrah Novak said the DA was “a great opportunity to bring something like this out into the open and discuss it”, about an “industry which is often demonised”.
Councillor Williamson said he, too, had “struggled immensely with the clash with [his] morals and beliefs”.
However, he said: “We have very little choice, no matter how much it grinds us; when said and done the law is the law; in this case they [planning officers] give us clear guidance on what is acceptable under law.”
The report to council stated that “a licence will be required from the NSW Police through Coffs Clarence Licensing Division” necessitating the full disclosure of the operator’s details to “be assessed to ensure they are suitable to operate the business”.