The long-touted Richmond Vale Rail Trail has moved a step closer to reality after plans for the 32-kilometre shared path's initial sections in the Newcastle local government area won approval.
The Hunter and Central Coast Regional Planning Panel gave a green light to City of Newcastle's development application (DA) on Monday following an assessment meeting in November.
The approved project includes about the first third of the full rail trail, which has for years been proposed to run from Shortland to Kurri Kurri mostly following the old Richmond Vale rail line.
The council split the project into four trail "legs" - Shortland to Hexham Junction (3km) along a water pipeline track, Hexham Junction to Minmi (7.5km) along the rail corridor, Minmi Junction to Pambalong Nature Reserve (2.1km) which runs under the M1 Motorway and allows for a connection to Kurri Kurri, and a spur from Minmi Junction to Fletcher (700 metres) to link with residential areas.
About two kilometres of the Shortland to Hexham section, which runs through Hunter Wetlands National Park, requires approval from NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service to proceed.
The council's DA was approved subject to 100 conditions of consent, including meeting a range of environmental and construction requirements.
Horses, dogs and any other domestic animals will not be allowed on the track.
The council was also forced to drop two legs, from Hexham Junction to Tarro and a Hunter Wetlands Centre link at Shortland, from its plans. These will be subject to future applications.
Newcastle lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes said the planning panel's approval was a "major step forward" for the future "regionally significant recreational and tourism attraction", but the $21 million project would ultimately require external funding.
"Significant work went into preparing this DA and I want to congratulate everyone who played their part," she said.
"This is an important milestone and I'm excited and very optimistic about the future of the Richmond Vale Rail Trail."
Billy Metcalfe, president of advocacy group Richmond Vale Rail Trail Incorporated, said the planned 32-kilometre path had the potential to be an iconic attraction.
"This is a project with state significance, linking the coast to the valley will be a major achievement," he said.
"Reaching this point is exciting as many of the project's major planning milestones have been met.
"If we can get the current DA finalised and find funding, it's time to get on with the western end of the project, so the full potential of the [trail] can be unlocked."
The full trail runs through the Newcastle, Lake Macquarie and Cessnock LGAs, the Wallsend and Cessnock state electorates and the Newcastle and Paterson federal electorates.
Greens councillor John Mackenzie described it as "the Fernleigh Track on steroids".
"When completed, the full rail trail will be ... supporting commuting and recreational cyclists, but also people with reduced mobility, walkers, runners, bird watchers, families and community groups," he said.
"Importantly, it will enable access to high value conservation areas that were previously inaccessible.
"This is smart, clean, green investment in transport and our tourism industry."
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