The Shire council has sensation-ally refused a bid for a five-star resort for the ruins of Wallcliffe House.
The shock decision on Wednesday night knocked back the application to advertise a scheme amendment for the derelict riverfront site, saying heritage concerns and the risks to sacred sites and the Margaret River were too great for the ambitious project to proceed.
Conservationists were thrilled at the decision — and councillors who backed the proposal were livid.
The refusal cannot be taken to the State Administrative Tribunal, which would only consider rejected development applications rather than changes to a planning scheme.
Proponents Alexandra Burt, the owner of Voyager Estate and heir to her father Michael Wright’s iron ore fortune, and her husband Julian would take a month’s holiday to consider their options.
The four-three decision on Wednesday night in Augusta saw Shire president Pam Townsend put the final nail in the project’s coffin after Crs Naomi Godden, Julia Meldrum, and Peter Lane voted to refuse it.
The reasons cited for refusal were the “potential for adverse impacts on the surrounding natural environment and on the sites of Aboriginal and colonial cultural importance (within and surrounding the site),” the council said.
“The existing scheme provisions represent the maximum development intensity that council is prepared to support on the subject site without risk of negative environmental and Aboriginal and colonial heritage outcomes,” it said.
Cr Ian Earl was visibly furious as the numbers against the project became clear.
“I’m actually staggered,” he said.
“The Shire president says she’s not anti-business, but if we vote against this today, we are appearing very anti-business.”
Cr Earl and colleagues Mike Smart and Pauline McLeod wanted the project to proceed, with talk of 120 jobs and a “re-imagining” of the historic house, destroyed by fire in 2011, seen as a major shot in the arm for the struggling local economy.
But it was those 120 jobs — and up to 100 guests a night, as well as patrons of the site’s proposed restaurant, gardens, and exhibition space — that concerned the council majority.
“I find that difficult to reconcile with a ‘low-key’ facility,” Cr Lane said. “Employing 120 staff is not boutique.”
Cr Godden said it was important to question at what cost those valued jobs would come.
“Is building a high-end resort on the banks of the Margaret River at this site the best way to develop jobs for our community?” she asked.
Wadandi elder Bill Webb and conservationists Ray Swarts and Jinni Wilson spoke against the item during delegations.
Mrs Burt travelled from Peppermint Grove to argue her case, saying the development was a “re-imagining” of the site, which could not be restored under WA’s heritage laws.
Mrs Burt said the report contained “scary language” using terms like “resort”, but that was not an accurate picture of the 50-bedroom top-end hotel and function centre planned.
“We are not property developers,” she said. “We are in fact environmentally-committed growers and farmers with a passion for sharing places with others.
“We hope to be able to share the stories and experiences of the house, the site, and the region in a deep and respectful way and, we would argue, in a way not currently being offered by accommodation providers here.
“It goes without saying that this project will generate an ongoing economic return that the whole community can enjoy.
“We also anticipate the property will attract new visitors with an above-average discretionary spending ability.”
Dissenting councillors couldn’t see restoring the site would give residents much access, and a decision to advertise the amendment could not be made on economic grounds.
Cr Godden said the Shire received “numerous” letters from Bussell descendants with serious worries about the project.
With Crs Townsend and Lane due to retire at next month’s election, a new-look council could also be asked to revisit the decision if minor changes are made, while Mrs Burt and husband Julian are considering their options.