Bellingen Shire blueberry farming regulation

Despite Melinda Pavey’s assertions that ‘regulations should be the last resort’ and that ‘Codes of Practice and Community Charters can easily deliver good, balanced outcomes’, Bellingen Shire Council has voted to go ahead with a planning proposal to require Development Applications (DAs) for new blueberry farms unless they meet specified provisions for exemption.

The policy change would affect land in Zone RU1 Primary Production, Zone RU2 Rural Landscape, Zone RU4 Primary Production Small Lots, and Zone E4 Environmental Living.

The recommendation put at the council meeting today (September 27) specified that blueberry farming would be ‘exempt development’ if it complied with following criteria.

  • Blueberry plants & associated infrastructure (such as poles and netting) are located a minimum of 200m from any dwelling (not including a dwelling on the same property) and a minimum of 50m from any property boundary not held in the same ownership.
  • Blueberry plants & associated infrastructure (such as poles and netting) are located minimum distances away from watercourses based upon the Strahler method of stream ordering.
  • Where it is necessary to apply the setback distances specified in subclause b), and those setbacks are vegetated, the setback distances must be retained in their vegetated state, with the exception of the removal of any non-native species.
  • Blueberry plants & associated infrastructure such as poles and netting are not located within any area mapped as ‘’core koala habitat’’ in any adopted Koala Plan of Management.
  • Any netting proposed for the protection of the crop must be black

The vote was split 3-3, with Cr Steve Jenkins, Cr Desmae Harrison and Cr Garry Carter voting no, Cr Steve Klipin absent, and Mayor Dominic King using his casting vote to push it through.

Coincidentally, the matter was considered a day after the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) and Coffs Harbour City Council found multiple breaches of regulations regarding pesticide and chemical storage and waste disposal at blueberry farms in the Sandy Beach and Woolgoolga areas.

A document distributed before the meeting noted that although the industry was making moves towards a greater level of self-regulation, ‘the proposed policy position provides Council with a fall-back position in the event that this does not occur’ and that it was consistent with NSW government recommendations on intensive horticulture operations. 

Mayor Dominic King said the proposed policy changes were not an attack on farmers, horticulture or agriculture in the shire, and that the intent was simply to ensure water resources, buffer zones and habitat were protected, and the use of chemicals and pesticides was properly controlled. 

“What we are asking for here has all come from government guidelines and best practice documents,” he said. “We have seen massive growth in the blueberry industry in this region and the regulatory staff have not been able to keep up.”

Cr Jennie Fenton commented that blueberry farming was different to any other industry in the shire.

”The only thing I can compare it to in terms of heavy poison and high water use and impact on neighbours is the cotton industry out west,” she said. “Their rivers became drains, not rivers, and the impact on their biological diversity was absolutely catastrophic.”

She said she had no qualms about discouraging people who didn’t want to follow the law and industry best practice.

“Blueberries are not unwelcome here, we just want our blueberries green. It is a basic step we are taking and we wouldn’t need to if the state government was properly resourced to implement its regulations.”

Those who voted against the recommendation included Cr Steve Jenkins, who said he wasn’t satisfied there was evidence-based justification for it and that regulation would not impact the broader farming community.

Cr Steve Jenkins said the proposal was discriminatory and should apply to all horticulture, not just blueberries, while Cr Desmae Harrison thought there had been insufficient consultation with farmers.

There will be a public meeting to discuss concerns about the blueberry industry, with information presented by scientists, environmental activists and industry representatives held at the Cavanbah Centre, 191 Harbour Drive, Coffs on October 5 starting at 6.30pm.

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