A CATHOLIC welfare group in a bitter dispute with Black Hill residents has served an elderly man and his disabled son with proposed "orders", including a gag order, in an extraordinary escalation of tension as the parties face each other in court this week.
Lawyers for the Marist180 group issued the father and son with a proposed agreement on November 27 that would have required them to remove "Marist180 Leave Black Hill" signs from their property and cars, and included that they "must not disclose the contents of this order to any other person except to obtain legal advice".
The request for the two men to sign an agreement with the proposed "orders" was made in letters giving them seven days to comply or "our clients will consider pursuing its legal entitlements and commencing legal proceedings against you, without further notice".
The Catholic organisation alleged the two men left people in a Marist180 group home for troubled youths feeling harassed and intimidated because of the signs and incidents, including the construction of an electrified fence and operation of a "snake sounder".
But Black Hill residents spokesmen Adam Fairbairn and Phil Clulow said the letter was extraordinary overreach by an organisation that on Wednesday in the Land and Environment Court will challenge whether Mr Fairbairn can represent other residents fighting the group home in their area.
The challenge comes two weeks after Black Hill residents and Families, Communities and Disability Services Minister Gareth Ward reached an agreement, on confidential terms, leaving only residents and Marist180 in the dispute. The facility offers intensive therapeutic transitional care for up to four troubled youths at a time on behalf of Mr Ward.
Residents initiated court action on May 22 after the Catholic group bought the Black Hill property in the quiet rural area 27 kilometres from Newcastle CBD to establish an intensive therapeutic care hub. Marist180 is one of nine providers funded by the NSW Government to operate the intensive therapeutic care model introduced in October, 2017.
In evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse the then Department of Family and Community Services Secretary Michael Coutts-Trotter said intensive therapeutic care provided full casework and care support for youths with "complex individual needs, given the trauma they have experienced".
"The aim is to develop a service system focused on healing and recovery from trauma," Mr Coutts-Trotter said.
Intensive therapeutic care is provided to youths over 12 who experienced trauma, abuse, neglect or severe adversity, for periods of up to 12 weeks before placement in foster or other care.
But Black Hill residents say the model requires more staff than the traditional group home model catering for four youths with 24-hour, seven day a week worker support. They argue the facility is prohibited in the area or requires development consent because it is not just a transitional group home.
A review of environmental factors commissioned by Mr Ward in August noted residents' submissions that up to 13 cars are parked at the facility at a time. The review recommended that the Black Hill site not be used by Marist180 for administrative functions not directly associated with care of youths at the facility, and that approvals for on-site sewage management systems are obtained and maintained.
Residents have alleged the existing on-site sewage system was designed for a family and is not suitable for a facility operating around-the-clock with four youths and a minimum three staff during weekday working hours.
Mr Fairbairn said those opposed to the Marist180 facility included the parents of severely autistic adult siblings. The parents have provided a report by the siblings' psychologist about their vulnerability and suggestibility.
"Their parents moved to Black Hill 26 years ago because of their particular needs and now believe they will have to leave the area because of their proximity to this facility," Mr Fairbairn said.
The elderly man and his disabled son served with the letters requiring them to agree to "orders" were shocked by them, Mr Fairbairn said.
Black Hill residents believe their case, if successful, could threaten the operation of other intensive therapeutic care facilities in environmental zonings.
In September Marist180 succeeded in a Land and Environment Court application requiring Black Hill residents to lodge a $40,000 security by late October or their court case would end.
The Catholic group told Justice John Robson its legal bill had already reached $340,000 and a three-day hearing later this month could add another $140,000 to its legal bill.
It questioned whether the group was a not-for-profit community organisation, potentially protected from being ordered to pay legal costs if they lose the case, or a limited number of property owners "protected from the usual cost risk by the corporate shield offered by the corporation".
Mr Fairbairn said the group represented 94 property owners who believed that "you need to stand up for the rules that apply in these zonings".
"We're far from being residents saying 'We don't want this in our suburb'," he said.
"This is an area with a higher than average percentage of families with people with disabilities and particular needs. It's why people came here. It's Marist180 that's trying to put something here that doesn't comply with the zone."
Marist180 was contacted for comment.
In the September court hearing it argued its use of the site to accommodate vulnerable children with paid supervision and care "fits neatly" within the state planning policy definition of "transitional group home".