Port Stephens Council votes behind closed doors to extend lease agreement for controversial Williamtown sand mine

PLEA FOR HELP: Williamtown residents Cain Gorfine, left, and Brian Curry are fighting the approval of the controversial Cabbage Tree Road sand mine.

PLEA FOR HELP: Williamtown residents Cain Gorfine, left, and Brian Curry are fighting the approval of the controversial Cabbage Tree Road sand mine.

PORT Stephens Council voted in secret this week to extend the sunset clause for the lease of a controversial sand mine site, located in the heart of the Williamtown red zone.

The move gives the Williamtown Sand Syndicate either an additional two years on its lease of the council-owned site or one year after the outcome of a legal appeal launched by residents in June.

It is the fourth sunset clause extension granted for the lease agreement, the first voted on by council in confidential session.

Angry residents questioned why council needed to make the decision behind closed doors and called on the councillors to put “people before profits”.

Half a million tonnes of sand will be extracted each year from the $4.6 million quarry that is expected to generate $16 million for the council.

After seeing the sand mine’s address listed in the council meeting papers for Tuesday night under “confidential”, Williamtown and Surrounds Residents’ Group made an application to address the council.

The fate of the sand mine will be decided by the Land and Environment Court after the residents’ group launched a merit appeal against the Independent Planning Commission of NSW’s decision in May to approve the mine.

Residents’ spokesman Cain Gorfine addressed the council on Tuesday night, urging councillors not to grant a lease extention and deal with the matter transparently.

“You are all elected councillors and are in the position you are because of your own strong beliefs and ideals, you are not above the community you serve,” he said. “You must put the families and businesses of Williamtown first.”

Cr Giacomo Arnott moved a motion, that was seconded by Cr John Nell, to deal with the matter in open council, but it was defeated.

Cr Jaimie Abbott came under fire from the residents after she declared a non-pecuniary interest, because she is a Department of Defence employee, and left the meeting, along with Cr Ken Jordan due to his friendship with Williamtown Sand Syndicate shareholder Darren Williams.

Defending her decision on Wednesday, Cr Abbott said she needed to protect her “full-time employment”.

“I might be being over cautious here, but I have been consistent since I got onto council,” she said. “I take the line that I don’t vote on anything, in any way, linked to Defence.”

UNDER FIRE: Cr Jaimie Abbott defended her decision not to vote on a motion to publicly debate the sand mine lease extension due to her job with Defence.

UNDER FIRE: Cr Jaimie Abbott defended her decision not to vote on a motion to publicly debate the sand mine lease extension due to her job with Defence.

The residents’ group questioned how the sand mine lease was linked to the Department of Defence.

Mayor Ryan Palmer said on Wednesday that the council had asked advice several months ago about the costs involved in rescinding the lease and any potential threat of legal action if it did.

Read more: Residents appeal Williamtown mine(June 6, 2018)

He said there were figures provided by “both sides” and they needed to be discussed “behind closed doors”.

“They are big numbers,” he said. “We’re in a tricky spot due to the past council’s decision [to grant the lease].”

Council voted in confidential session on Tuesday night to extend the lease agreement.

Cr Nell said he believed a “sanitised version” of the confidential report could have been provided by council staff so the decision to extend the lease could be debated in open council.

“Cancelling the contract is not an option, the cost is too great,” he said. “Sand mining is very lucrative for the council, but I feel sorry for the immediate neighbours. In my opinion council should be looking at a buyout for the immediate neighbours, they need to be looked after.”

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