City News

The Little Church that needs a Prayer

Rose Bay Uniting Church caught in Planning nightmare. Photo: John Moyle

By John Moyle

A little understood loophole in the new Development Application (DA) process has been used by a developer to bring a small church in Rose Bay under threat from the wrecking ball.

The battle for Rose Bay’s Uniting Church on the corner of Old South Head and Dover Roads began last year when its owners, Uniting Church of Australia Property Trust, approached developers Endeavour Property to repurpose the church and its adjacent Wesley Hall and ready it for sale.

In an attempt to obfuscate the fact that they are essentially demolishing the church, Uniting are hiding behind a claim it’s for the greater good, saying that they are re-deploying the profits elsewhere, despite the fact the church and its Wesley Hall has been an essential part the Rose Bay community for a half a century.

On the church’s website Uniting claims the “1905 church will be the hero of the development”, which will see everything except some walls demolished to provide for 10 apartments at $3.5 million apiece and three retail spaces and parking.

“The proposal put forward by the applicant is to pretty much demolish 90 per cent of the site and retain a small remnant of the church,” Councillor Anthony Marano, Liberals, Woollahra said.

“The studies done by the Council recommended that the whole site is worth preserving.”

The Rose Bay community has rallied with a change.org petition signed by almost 1,000, and a unanimous vote by Woollahra Council to recommend the church be listed on its heritage register, and reject the DA.

However despite the united resistance, new state planning laws may shut the community out.

“It went before the Local Planning Panel a fortnight ago and the current development application by the church was rejected,” Councillor Lucinda Regan, Residents’ First, Woollahra said.

“The church through their property consultant lodged an appeal to the Land and Environment Court so it’s not over yet.”

It seems that there is a gap between listing a property for heritage and having the results whereby a developer can lodge a DA and have it approved without heritage consideration under the Gateway process.

The Gateway process is whereby Local Environmental Plans (LEPs) start with a planning process in local council and the outcome is assessed by the Department of Planning and Environment – effectively removing councils from the equation.

“It makes a mockery out of a heritage listing,” Cr Marano said.

“The problem now is that we have this email from the Department of Planning to say that they are not going to consider the heritage listing while they consider the DA.

“We thought that the interim heritage order could bide us some time.”

“The Department received a Gateway determination request from Woollahra Council on July 2018 seeking to amend its local environment plan and list Rose Bay Uniting Church as a local heritage item,” a spokesperson for the NSW Department of Planning and Environment said.

For many fighting the fight this was the first time that they had encountered the Gateway process and were taken by surprise.

“The Gateway determination has a provision that any DA lodged but not determined before the heritage order takes effect, so they are saying you can have a heritage order, however we are adding another clause that says that we will protect any DA lodged without heritage consideration,” said resident Maria Judd.

As a background the Department’s spokesperson told the City Hub “Councils are required to submit planning proposals for a Gateway Determination request under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act”.

The Gateway process then allows the planning proposals, submitted by a council, to proceed to public exhibition.

Earlier this month Ms Amanda Harvey, Planning’s Director of Sydney Region East wrote to Woollahra Council saying “As delegate of the Greater Sydney Commission, I have now determined that the planning proposal should proceed subject to the conditions in the enclosed Gateway determination”.

In the letter Ms Harvey also said that the LEP is to be finalised within nine months of the Gateway determination.

Local member for Vaucluse and Minister for Heritage Gabrielle Upton was constrained in what she was able to say as the issue of the church’s heritage listing is a current matter.

“I understand the heritage aspects of the Uniting Church in Rose Bay are being considered for a possible local listing,” Ms Upton said.

It is clear from what is happening with the little church on the bay that any consideration of a potential heritage listing of any local building needs to be dealt with swiftly before the developers swoop again.

In this instance Council and its residents were not prepared for the effect of the new legislation regarding jurisdiction over DAs which came into effect earlier this year.

Councils will now need to urgently assign resources to consider which heritage buildings are in the jurisdiction, a problem Cr Marano identifies as being an issue for Woollahra Council.

“We will have to do a complete inventory of our buildings and identify them before a developer gets their hands on them,” Cr Marano said.

“We haven’t had enough staff and our approach was reactive in that we would wait for a DA and then look at the building.”

The heritage for the Rose Bay Uniting Church is in its architecture and extraordinary hand-crafted Edwardian woodwork, and as Maria Judd said “This site is an historical emblem of where we have come from”.

Uniting Church Property Trust and Endeavour Property were contacted for a response but did not reply.