Councillors at Tuesday night's meeting of Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council voted to seek wider public consultation over the proposed rail trail from Cootamundra to Gundagai and Tumblong.
The Council's decision puts the brakes on an earlier decision, at the June meeting, to move ahead quickly in applying for a government "pre-planning" grant of $100,000.
In June, council adopted a suggestion from Councillor Charlie Sheahan that the funding could be sourced from the State government's New Council Implementation Fund (NCIF).
He proposed council prepare a submission to the NSW government, and ask it to re-allocate $100,000 from the NCIF for pre-planning, including addressing any issues raised by landholders along the former railway.
His motion was strongly supported by Mayor Abb McAlister, who said it would be "fantastic" for our economy, and council voted unanimously in favour.
Five months later, the move to slow down the process follows the receipt of 46 letters sent to the council's public forum, opposing the rail trail on a variety of grounds, and calling for wider public consultation.
Councillor Gil Kelly said he had personally received many emails and phone calls questioning the proposal. He moved a motion that the council's earlier strong support of the project be "held in abeyance" until a community engagement strategy was prepared and adopted by the council.
His motion also called for a detailed cost estimate to be prepared, including ongoing maintenance costs, to form part of any community consultation.
In addition, no further progress should be made towards applying for the government grant until "all legitimate concerns of adjoining landholders be considered and addressed".
Cr Kelly said that given the feedback received from concerned residents, he thought a full round of community consultation was needed.
"Not just with some directly affected land owners, but to see if there is actual general community support for the project," he said.
"In other areas where there is a rail trail, the ongoing maintenance costs have had to be incorporated into their councils' ongoing budgets.
"Residents need to be aware that this has the same potential to be the case here.
"If the trail was to proceed and Council had to fund maintenance, it could result in a decrease in service levels in other areas to fund this unexpected impost."
At the public forum section at the beginning of the meeting, the mayor, Cr Abb McAlister, said 46 letters opposing the project had been received, with only four supporting.
All letters had been circulated to, and read by, councillors, although they were not published in the meeting's agenda papers.
Cr McAlister read out the names of those who had sent in letters, both for and against, and read two letters, as examples.
LETTER OF OBJECTION
The first letter he read out was from Gary and Simone Wilson of 74 O'Briens Road, Gundagai. It reads as follows:
"There are many issues that need to be discussed prior to any vote to proceed with a rail trail for our area.
"Many of these will have been raised and discussed by other interested and affected parties. Rather than repeat them at length and draw out the proceedings, we will focus on only a few concerns:
"First, lack of genuine consultation. We only became aware last night that a vote was imminent.
"We also learnt that a small group had been invited to provide written feedback and that this was to inform the council on the views of affected landholders.
"Is the small sample group truly representative of the views of affected landholders? How was this group selected and by who? What conflicts of interest exist or have been declared?
"Without transparency it is difficult to accept such a process would result in a representative view and would taint any decision based on this information.
"Second, the burden of ongoing funding. During the last meeting that we attended the funding focus was on the initial capital. When questions were asked about the level of ongoing operation, operating and maintenance costs and how this would be funded, the answers raised significant concern and have yet to be addressed.
"Existing trails in Australia have a maintenance cost of approximately $2,400 per km per year. This was felt to be insufficient for those tasked with the maintenance.
"Whilst plans for other rail trails include projected annual maintenance costs of $3,130 per km per year, raising the spectre of even higher costs.
"This means that for a 100km trail the annual maintenance would be approximately $240-313,000.
"These costs would not be able to be covered in the long term by existing council revenue and as such would inevitably lead to rate increases well above projected CPI at a time when many are financially struggling.
Third, expected usage/spend. Concerns have been raised about the expected usage rates that have been used to justify this project.
"With the benefit of this project linked directly to usage and average spending, this is a critical component of any decision. The experience of other locations will not translate directly to other local projects.
"Unlike many of the other trails, the local trails would consist mainly of the established grazing and cropping land, with limited established trees or features. It would be exacerbated by the extremes of temperature that we experience in our region.
"In addition there appears to be significant variation in the average spending of rail trail users, depending on location. Given that expected length of stay would be lower than in other areas due to a lack of other tourist attractions, the average spend would reasonably be expected to be significantly lower.
"We believe that it would be premature and fiscally irresponsible for council to go ahead with this project unless these and other outstanding issues are adequately addressed. .
LETTER OF SUPPORT
Cr McAlister then read a letter supporting the rail trail proposal, from Dr Virginia Rice, chair of the Gundagai Rail Trail Supporters Group. This read as follows:
"Congratulations to the council for your unanimous support and for sending in a submission to the NSW government for the development of the Cootamundra-Tumblong rail trail.
"The rail track has not been used since 1983. It is wonderful news that there is council support for a rail trail.
We wholeheartedly look forward to the construction of the Cootamundra-Tumblong rail trail for many reasons.
"It will be a major asset to the health of our community providing a permanent safe trail for cycling and walking and running.
"It will be a large boost to the local economy with more job creation in both construction and maintenance. It will result in increased tourism, with great benefits for the local economy as well."
OTHER PROJECTS COMPETING FOR FUNDS
The mayor opened the council meeting to discussion on Cr Kelly's motion, and contributions were made by Crs Penny Nichollson, Leigh Bowden, Dennis Palmer, Craig Stewart and Charlie Sheahan.
Cr McAlister said he agreed the council should do community consultation on a fuller scale, whether it be community meetings, or to start with, a community survey, on their thoughts about the rail trail.
"I think we've got a lot of other projects - I class them as 'half-opened pocket knife projects' - that we need to finish and need money spent on," the mayor said.
"There's the Old Mill in Gundagai, Pioneer Park in Cootamundra, the Ampol site in Cootamundra and the Old Gundagai Town project that has been on the books for a fair while.
"And as Cr Palmer said, our situation its not going to improve for a reasonable number of years.
"Whether we demerge or stay merged, financially there's going to be issues for a number of years, and if we have a maintenance bill of $150-200,000 I can't see how we can afford it.
"But I'm happy if we go along and make the community consultation strategy and have something earlier in the new year, whether it be public meetings, or a survey survey sent out, perhaps in conjunction with our newsletter."
A majority of councillors voted to support Cr Kelly's motion to hold the fund application in abeyance pending wider public consultation.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.