DOUGLAS SHIRE COUNCIL / High Rise for Warner Street?


Douglas Shire Council will consider a proposal to approve a high rise hotel on Warner St at Tuesday’s ordinary meeting. Warner Street Hotel’s proposal does not comply with the Douglas Shire local planning scheme.

DouglasNews.Network considers it vital that residents, ratepayers and local businesses understand why compliance with the local planning scheme is critical to the integrity and future of our Shire.

Land-use planning has been the foundation for 30 years of prosperity and nature conservation

➤ Urban expansion will undermine economic growth

➤ “It is hard to think of an area in Queensland where so much has been achieved. Perhaps only Noosa comes close.” Jeff Humphries, Planner

In his first term of office (1991 – 1994) Douglas Shire Mayor, Cr Mike Berwick raised the idea of a growth limit by asking the question of planners, “where do we accommodate growth and how much: on the agricultural land which threatens the viability of the sugar industry, on the hillsides which threatens the scenic values or high rise (height limits were already enshrined as three stories or the height of coconut palms). There are no other choices.”

“I had always thought Douglas would need to limit growth to protect the environment, agriculture, the tourism experience and the Shire’s scenic beauty,” Berwick said. “Limiting growth was, and still is, controversial, but we had to face these issues. When we did just that it attracted national and international attention, making Douglas seem an even more desirable place to live and visit. Evidence of that was the visit of President Clinton, choosing Douglas as the place to call on Australia to “introduce legally binding GHG emissions”. The president of China and Germany followed further putting Douglas on the map as a place of exceptional beauty that the locals were prepared to protect.”

Noosa Shire followed with a similar strategy.

These discussions led to the preparation of the 1996 planning scheme founded on a suite of research papers, the “Planning Studies”. These studies considered the key environmental, economic, scenic and social values that would be lost under a regime of continuous or unlimited growth. To protect the environment, economy and scenery from damaging change, the planning scheme set an urban footprint which to this day is reflected in subsequent revisions and re-writes.

The newly elected Mayor has indicated he intends to change this by opening rural areas for urban, commercial and industrial development.

Jeff Humphreys was principal of the firm contracted to draft the new scheme. He describes the studies and community consultations undertaken in the early 1990s as well-resourced. They set a foundation for planning parameters that have been in place ever since, reflected largely in the current, recently adopted 2018 Planning Scheme.

“The process to develop these guidelines was thorough and have formed the basis of an ongoing Douglas Shire “planning culture”, a shared understanding which has endured to this point”, Humphries said this week.

“These planning strategies have had an enormous positive impact on the appropriate management of the landscape and natural environment, which is evident today. This careful stewardship of the Shire’s resources has protected the Shire’s valuable tourism and agricultural assets, as well as the unique lifestyle setting that Douglas Shire offers.”

The 1996 Planning Scheme sought to manage the impacts of growth in two ways:

  • By directing growth to certain areas and constraining growth in others,
  • By limiting the type of economic development sought by the Shire and limiting, at least for the time being and, the quantum or extent of growth.

The first of these is characteristic of most land use planning, the second is much less common and attracted worldwide attention.

The Planning Studies, specifically Section 19, analysed four “development thresholds”, beyond which there are “certain implications”. They were:

  • The capacity of the Captain Cook Highway between Buchans Point and Yule Point
  • Water supply infrastructure upgrades and supply source limitations
  • The need to retain a minimum area of cane land for Mill viability
  • Limitations on visitation growth to the Daintree-Bloomfield area

The studies included a Landscape Report, prepared by Chenoweth and Associates which concluded “Further development will encroach into the scenic cane fields of the coastal plain and potentially prominent hillslopes abutting the plain.”

The Planning Studies included a substantial examination of the Shire’s tourism industry, led by tourism expert Dianne Dredge, which concluded:

  • Only certain forms of tourism should be accommodated ….”… theme parks, casinos and a wide range of golf course resorts ….do not need to be repeated in Douglas….rather the theme should be the exploration and appreciation of the natural environment…sophisticated urban/tourism environments…the special scenic attributes, cane fields and local history
  • Tourism infrastructure, including accommodation, should be accommodated in Port Douglas
  • North of the River, only accommodation and facilities that support exploration and appreciation of the natural environment are appropriate.

The Captain Cook Highway “…surely one of the most spectacular driving experiences in Australia…”was estimated to be able to accommodate a resident population of 16,000 above which the road may need to go to four lanes at the expense of the “evocative entry experience…”

The Planning Studies and subsequent Daintree Planning Package suggests the visitor threshold for North of the Daintree should be 780,000 and that “….while upgrading or duplicating the ferry is not a huge problem, visitation beyond this level will be likely to result in unacceptable effects on the type of visitor experience sought.”

Section 19.3 of the Planning Studies identifies thresholds of 40,000 combined visitor and residential population, beyond which major new water supply infrastructure (a major storage dam) will be required.

At the rapid growth rate of the time, those thresholds were expected to be reached before 2010, but factors like the global financial crisis have meant those thresholds have not yet been reached. Today there is still considerable land available for urban development.

Section 19.4 deals with the viability of the sugar industry with the encroachment of urban and tourism development based on a study by Sugar Consultants Australia, which allowed for the current urban footprint but beyond which the Mill would need new lands to remain viable.

Based on these studies, the Plan was “…intended to manage and limit growth, in the strategic plan, the development control plans and zoning scheme.”

The 1996 planning scheme acknowledged unforeseen changes might influence these thresholds and so ongoing review was seen as “necessary and expected. One thing though has changed – international consensus on the impacts of climate change, leading among other things, to sea-level rise and shoreline retreat.

As a result, the 2018 Douglas Shire Planning Scheme includes a “residential investigation area” on the western side of the Captain Cook Highway at Craiglie. The primary motivation for the inclusion of this investigation area by the previous Council was to provide for the opportunity to respond to rising sea levels. That is, it would provide the opportunity, should the need be demonstrated in the future for existing residential areas to “retreat” from vulnerable coastal areas in Port Douglas to “higher ground” at Craiglie.

An extract of a map from the planning scheme hereunder shows the extent of the investigation area:

The area has been nominated as an “investigation area” to facilitate precisely that. An investigation would need to precede any proposal to rezone the land to residential to facilitate development of the area for that purpose. Any investigation must clearly demonstrate the “need” for the rezoning, be it to facilitate a response to climate change or any other “need”.

Jeff Humphreys concludes that the achievement of Douglas Shire Council in successfully and consistently managing the extraordinary urban, natural and rural environments of the Douglas Shire over the last thirty years, should not be under-estimated. Often there has no doubt been considerable pressure to depart from the principles developed with the support of the community during the ‘90s. However, clearly, there has been enough agreement and common understanding in the community to maintain and protect the clear directions that were established at that time. It is hard to think of an area in Queensland where so much has been achieved in that regard. Perhaps only Noosa comes close.


This article first appeared in DouglasNews.Network on July 7,2020 and has been updated to reflect current development applications that are non-compliant with the local planning scheme.

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