It has been hit by fires, fought over by politicians and threatened by several court challenges, but despite decades of controversy the $1.5 billion Huntlee Estate is fast taking shape.
Huntlee's location, that straddles the Cessnock and Singleton local government areas, was once viewed by the NSW government as the least favourable option for a new town in the Hunter.
But the vast subdivision across 1500 hectares, the first new town in the region in 50 years, is now firmly on the map. About 7500 homes will be built across vast tracts of rural land and old mine workings over four stages. More than 600 homes have already been built, home to 2000 people.
The 25-year project, due for completion around 2040, will have a population of about 20,000, making it comparable in size to Singleton. In the first residential village, Katherine's Landing, nearly 1200 lots have been sold.
According to the advertising material, Huntlee will be an urban renewal masterpiece offering an enviable lifestyle and bustling commercial hub just minutes from the end of the Hunter Expressway and New England Highway.
True to the project's contentious past, Huntlee has had several owners, been known by different names, marketed in different forms and attracted many different friends and foe.
For almost two decades, debate around the new town has touched the most sensitive issues in regional planning: environment versus development and employment opportunities and decentralisation versus the hard-held Hunter view among many that the region's size is good enough as is.
For years, nearby residents and green groups - combined under the banner Sweetwater Action Group, now the North Rothbury Residents Group - unsuccessfully fought to prevent the development going ahead.
Huntlee started life back in 2004 as Sweetwater, then a 2000-hectare site created under a partnership between Maitland's Chris Richards, who bought the land from Coal and Allied for $1.6 million in 1990 to store his heritage collection, and one of the region's most controversial developers Duncan Hardie's Hardie Holdings.
The development got off to a bad start when in August 2005 large-scale clearing by Hardie Holdings of endangered trees and shrubs led to a state government investigation and a public outcry.
Huntlee's site was originally rated last in an assessment of more than 250 development locations for a new town by the NSW Department of Planning. This meant it was excluded from the draft Lower Hunter strategy, a masterplan released in 2003 to determine the shape, tone and size of the region's development landscape for the next generation.
But intense lobbying by Hardie Holdings and its consultant, former ALP powerbroker Graham Richardson, led to Huntlee being included in the final strategy. The decision produced a windfall for Hardie Holdings, when a scaled-down version of Huntlee was approved in 2006, in return for the developer donating a large portion of land for environmental protection.
Mr Richards told the Newcastle Herald this month that Mr Hardie approached him in late 2006 concerned about a feared worldwide economic collapse and the future of the joint venture that would take up to 20 years to develop. He said Mr Hardie, who did not respond to requests for comment, indicated he was getting out of property and planned to bundle up everything he owned and sell it for the best price.
Unable to continue with the subdivision alone, in 2007 Mr Richards surrendered his 20 per cent stake in the joint venture and sold his interests in the land to Hardie Holdings for $27 million, which meant selling the shares in several of his companies, including Misthold Pty Ltd which is now taking the legal action to evict HVRT.
Just weeks after Mr Richards was out of the joint venture, it was publicly revealed that Hardie Holdings, now in complete control of the project, had teamed up with one of Western Australia's leading land developers, Danny Murphy's LWP Group, and global investment bank Lehman Bros in a new venture called Huntlee Holdings.
According to media reports, the sale of the stake, by Hardie Holdings, valued the Huntlee land at $185 million, almost seven times more than what Mr Richards received for his land. Hardie Holdings retained 25 per cent of the project, LWP Group took a 40 per cent stake, Lehman owned 29 per cent and the balance was held by Indigenous Business Australia.
Mr Richards said he "was floored" when he found out about the new venture and how much the land was valued at. "I had no idea about any of it," he said. "To say it was a shock is an absolute understatement."
As part of the deal to sell the land, Mr Richards' HVRT agreed to loan back $7 million, which he described as the "long-term survival money for the railway collection", to Mr Hardie's interests. It was money that would not be repaid.
The $7 million was eventually lost when the development failed to win a major court case and eventually the new company, Huntlee Holdings, was liquidated in 2011. "That was money we just couldn't afford to lose," Mr Richards said. "It left the trust in a terrible financial position."
For decades the NSW government and community groups have been at odds over the future of the Huntlee site. In February 2009, then planning minister Kristina Keneally announced the approval of the new town that she said would accommodate up to 20,000 people.
The then $1.8 billion project, called Huntlee New Town, was touted as going to create 3000 jobs and preserve nearly 5900 hectares of the site for conservation. But seven months later, the future of the state's biggest housing development collapsed when Ms Keneally admitted she acted unlawfully in approving the then 7200-home proposal.
On the eve of yet another court challenge by Sweetwater Action Group, Ms Keneally said the minister's approval of the concept plan and a rezoning application breached planning laws. The government and the developer agreed to the court making orders to stop the building of houses.
Ms Keneally's concession sounded the death knell for the project and the Huntlee land was reverted to rural zoning and its value plummeted. In rezoning the land in January and approving the concept plan a month later, Ms Keneally breached the law because her predecessor, Frank Sartor, had signed a separate land-swap memorandum of understanding under which Huntlee would give almost 5900 hectares of its conservation land to the state as part of the project approval.
The Land and Environment Court's Justice David Lloyd, said such land-swap deals were "land bribes" when he overturned planning approval for another developer, Rose Group, to build 600 houses at Catherine Hill Bay. According to LWP at the time, the decision cost it at least $40 million, and both Lehman, whose administrator was still supporting the project after the investment bank's crash in the 2008 global financial crisis, and Hardie Holdings left the project.
In late 2010, LWP, primed with a new investor - family agribusiness company Kahlbetzer and its Twynam Group - returned with a new entity called Huntlee Pty Ltd to push for the creation of the new town. It was reported at the time that the funding structure saw LWP and the Kahlbetzers injecting $65 million in a 50/50 joint venture, the rest would be self-funded as lots were sold.
The on-again, off-again development was approved by planning minister Tony Kelly as a "state significant" development in December 2010 and hit another major setback seven months later due to another successful legal challenge by the Sweetwater Action Group.
The NSW Land and Environment Court ruled that Mr Kelly had not properly considered the need for remediation work on some of the site's old mining land and its suitability for uses once rezoned.
But a successful NSW Court of Appeal challenge in November 2011 by Huntlee, paved the way for the town's 7500 homes and 200 hectares of "employment lands". In April 2013, a three-person state government Planning Assessment Commission panel approved the first stage of the project, and its more than 1700 housing lots valued by the developer at $230 million.
Much to the despair of the community groups fighting the project, Legal Aid NSW announced months later that it would stop paying for public legal challenges on environmental matters in an effort to cut costs. Without funding, the legal challenges against the development ceased.
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