Clearing of bushland in the small New South Wales south coast town of Manyana will be halted temporarily after a community environment group trying to save the unburnt habitat began legal action in the federal court.
Ozy Homes has a development consent for the 20 hectares that dates back to 2008.
But the area is now the only significant piece of unburnt bushland for kilometres after it was saved by volunteer firefighters during the summer bushfire disaster.
The Manyana Matters Environmental Association has now launched a legal challenge to try to protect the area and is seeking an injunction from the court to stop any clearing.
Ozy Homes agreed on Wednesday to temporarily stop works until the matter returns to court again in June.
The company has also agreed to allow ecological experts for Manyana Matters to access the area and conduct surveys for threatened species including the greater glider, which is listed as vulnerable under national environmental law.
The company will be permitted to complete fencing work around the site’s perimeter.
“This is only the first step for us in assisting our clients to protect the greater glider and this now critical piece of land,” said David Morris, the chief executive of the Environmental Defenders Office.
The Manyana case has attracted high-profile support from the actor Claudia Karvan, who filmed a video calling for the NSW government to protect the bushland as a wildlife refuge for threatened species.
The Manyana Matters group says the site is habitat for the greater glider and the swift parrot and wants the state government to buy back the land and turn it into a nature reserve. It is unclear whether greater gliders are now using the site.
The project has never been assessed under Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, but has a state development consent.
At the time of the initial proposal in 2008, the greater glider was not listed as a threatened species under the EPBC Act.
The species was formally listed as vulnerable in 2016. It is now one of the federal government’s priority species requiring urgent assessment after fires destroyed parts of its habitat in Victoria and NSW.
The EDO will argue that the planned development is now a breach of federal environmental law. The legal firm will seek a declaration that the clearing is likely to have a significant impact on the greater glider and should not be permitted to proceed unless it assessed and approved at a federal level.
The Manyana development is just one project that highlights the problems that can arise for species when environmental catastrophes occur in the period between a development being granted approval and works commencing.
In many instances this timeframe can be several years and a species status can change owing to mounting pressures from drought, heatwaves and fires, or as a result of threats such as clearing for other projects.
“It is clear that a paradigm shift is needed to protect Australia’s incredible wildlife, which suffered so tremendously last summer,” Morris said.
“Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, the developer of this site now owns a piece of land that may be critical to the survival of the greater glider.”
Since the fire disaster the planned Shenhua Watermark coalmine and logging in NSW and Victoria – which is exempt from federal environmental laws – have also been identified as development that will push species under pressure closer to extinction unless governments decide to step in.
Morris said the coronavirus pandemic had affected the ability to conduct thorough assessments of the full impact of the fires. “The proper approach” would be to pause development of sites that might now hold increased importance to the survival of species, he said.
The independent ecologist will be granted access to the site for three days and nights. The matter is scheduled to be heard by the federal court again on 5 June.
Ozy Homes said it could not comment on a matter before the court. But its managing director, Ghazi Sangari, said the project had planning approvals and construction certificates and would employ more than 100 people. He said there had been several presales of houses in the planned develompent.
Sangari said the company had undertaken work to assess the potential impact on matters of national environmental significance and had been advised in 2018 the project did not warrant assessment under national environmental laws.
He said ecologists were now on site “obtaining further data to assess the potential ecological impact of the development, given the bushfires last summer which changed the landscape of the surrounding area”.
“If our legal obligations change as a result of this work and information reported to us, then we will fulfil these obligations,” he said.