Directorate sees no conflict in housing approval

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An image of the proposed demonstration house in Griffith.

A SENIOR public servant has been approved to take part in a government initiative that may see the rezoning of her Griffith property to allow for medium-density units.

Cindy Cantamessa, who works in the Capital Renewal Authority (CRA), and her husband Kevin Earle, are the proponents of the “Manor House” in Griffith, one of six projects across Canberra adopted by the government in May, 2019, as part of its Demonstration Housing Project, an initiative designed to help urban renewal.

The project would involve bulldozing the couple’s family Blaxland Street home in Griffith, to make way for a two-storey, four-unit “Manor House” with nine car park spaces and requires a variation to the RZ1 criteria to allow for medium-density units on a residential block. 

Ms Cantamessa is a project director with the CRA, an authority that sits within the purview of the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate (EPSDD) which is responsible for the Demonstration Housing Project.

Ms Cantamessa, who has previously worked with the ACT Housing Taskforce and with the Land Development Authority, told “CityNews” she filled out the relevant paperwork declaring any potential conflicts of interest with the authority and the directorate.

“I entered this project as an individual with my partner and declared those interests that I worked in the public service,” Ms Cantamessa said.

“I’ve been very open about that side of it and have ensured that I would never ever be involved in the Demonstration Housing Project in my own work environment.”

“CityNews” does not suggest that Ms Cantamessa has been given any preferential treatment in this process and has secured all necessary departmental approvals.   

The CRA, comprising planners, designers, infrastructure and project managers, is charged with “shaping the growth of the central parts of Canberra”, according to its website.

The authority sits within the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate (EPSDD), which is headed by director-general, chief planning executive and utilities technical director Ben Ponton. 

The EPSDD provides corporate and governance support for the Suburban Land Agency and the City Renewal Authority.

A spokesperson for the ACT government said Ms Cantamessa’s conflict-of-interest declaration was approved by the CEO of the City Renewal Authority in May, 2018, on the basis that the Demonstration Housing Project is “not related to any CRA work” and that the staff member would “exclude herself from any involvement in the assessment process if it was”.

ACT public service employees are members of our community and most live in Canberra, so they may submit planning applications in the ACT,” the government spokesperson said.

“The ACT government widely communicated the opportunity to be part of the Demonstration Housing Project, which was open to everyone in the Canberra community.”

The spokesperson said all decisions on development applications are made by “independent delegates” in the planning and land authority, with “internal processes guaranteeing” that any “real or perceived conflicts of interest are avoided.”

Jenny Stewart, a Canberra-based professor of public policy at the University of NSW in the Australian Defence Force Academy argues that from a “commonsense ethics perspective” it’s “certainly not appropriate” for a planning public servant to be involved in a development of this kind. 

“This should never have been allowed to arise in the first place… the  perceived conflict of interest is actually quite a bad one,” Prof Stewart said.

“Members of the public could readily take the view that the public servant concerned has had the inside running in relation to this DA, which concerns a one-off re-zoning of a block in the RZ1 area.

“In any case, I would have thought public servants in the planning area would be barred from being involved in development projects.”

Ms Cantamessa’s “Manor House” proposal has also attracted criticism from unhappy residents of the Griffith Narrabundah Community Association (GNCA) who are opposed to any changes to the planning regulations for RZ1.

The six Demonstration Housing projects are proposed for residential areas currently zoned as RZ1 in Griffith, Forrest, Chifley, Weston, Lyneham and Ainslie.

Each will require a “one-off” variation to the Territory plan from RZ1 – the basic residential zoning – to RZ2 to allow for multiple unit dwellings.

“Why can’t ‘Manor Houses’ be built in RZ2 medium-density residential zones, where the character of the area would not be changed,” Dr David Denham, president of the GNCA said.

Dr Denham said the GNCA is worried about the “future intent” of the Demonstration Housing Project.

“With a precedent for allowing the development of random sites, there will be little to stop the ACT government from turning most of Griffith and other suburbs throughout Canberra into higher-density areas, in effect destroying the existing low-density, separate-housing precincts,” Dr Denholm said.

“Homeowners will not be able to predict where the next high-density development will appear and whatever trust we have in our planning system will be undermined.”

The two-up, two-down “Manor House” style concept is common in NSW but will be a “first” for Canberra, Ms Cantamessa said of her proposal, which uses a 50:50 ratio of greenspace and building on the one block.

“We wanted to put forward a different dwelling type for people who may want to downsize but don’t want to leave their suburb, particularly if they are elderly,” Ms Cantamessa said.

“We have worked hard to ensure the look and feel fits in with the look of Griffith. What we are putting forward looks like one dwelling but it’s four dwellings; it’s a great concept and it’s close to schools and amenities.”

The Demonstration Housing Project requires proponents to present their project to the National Capital Design Review Panel and consult with the community. If a variation to the Territory Plan is successful, the next step is a development application.

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