THE majority of people at Wednesday night’s community meeting to discuss the proposed Woolworths development expressed their belief the supermarket will threaten village life in Bermagui.
Among the several hundred that packed the Bermagui Community Centre, there was minority present who spoke in favour of the Woolworths and having cheaper groceries and a wider choice, with several noting that residents currently drove to neighbouring towns to shop.
Bega Valley Shire Council called for the meeting after it postponed its decision on the development application in order to get more feedback from the community and to further assess the proposal for the 1513sqm site with 89 car parks on Young Street.
All the councillors were present as were two of council’s planning staff at the meeting, which at the request of council was hosted by the Bermagui Chamber of Commerce and Tourism.
Also attending were three representatives from Woolworths, one of whom spoke briefly when requested to do so about the corporation’s charity and community commitments while another confirmed that Woolworths would need to apply for a liquor license.
Of the speakers on Wednesday night, 24 spoke out against the development while there were five supporters of a new supermarket.
One of the vocal supporters was a Bermagui resident named Shane, who held up a banner stating: “Woolworths – The fresh start for Bermagui”.
Another resident named Dawn spoke passionately about Woolworths being part of the town growing and that the elderly people needed great choice and more nutritional choices, and this was countered by yells about the milk wars and local beef from up the back.
Proponents for the development argued a great range of goods and cheaper prices were needed for residents, but this was countered by opponents saying the supermarket chain would only raise prices once local businesses were forced to close down.
The issue of additional employment was raised, but opponents said the economic cost could outweigh the benefit.
“We may have up to five businesses close if Woolies comes here, if we lose five businesses then we lose five families, and if we lose five families then we lose students at the school and then we lose teachers…” one resident said.
Narelle Myers of the Bermagui Preschool said what the young families of Bermagui needed was “small locally-owned and run businesses”.
Others said the large Woolworths would dominate the business district, block views and destroy the village feel of town and potentially destroying the tourism experience.
Two speakers from Cobargo said a new Woolworths would even threaten businesses in that town, while the impact of Woolies trucks on roads and bridges was also raised more than once, as was the potential harmful impact of another liquor outlet open until late.
Local real estate agent Richard Tacheci spoke eloquently about that if the community wanted the council to oppose the development, concrete reasons would need to be found that stood up in the Land and Environment court.
And the question was then raised by several opponents on what grounds the development could be opposed by council and fought successfully in the Land and Environment Court.
Council planning and environment manager Andrew Woodley informed the crowd that the three criteria were economic, social and environmental impacts.
Vocal opponent Neil McPherson raised this issue of the council process again, including issue of the independence of the consultants hired by council to do a review of the proposal as these consultants had Woolworths as a client.
Economic figures that the 48 businesses in commercial precinct of Bermagui raised $48 million a year were also raised as being flawed.
Bermagui resident Helen Caldicott also spoke passionately about the threat she perceived Woolworths to be and drew applause when she was critical of council of working for the corporation rather than the community.
A Bermagui resident who identified himself as a lawyer with 15 years of experience of working on planning issues suggested the council had plenty of grounds to oppose the development and their argument could stand up in the Land and Environment Court.
He too alleged a conflict of interest in the Hill PDA review commissioned by council and then mentioned he had 51 pages of other valid objections too.
Quite some time was also spent on the issue of how the land formerly owned by the Illawarra Retirement Trust (IRT) was purchased by Woolworths.
Resident Errol Masterson explained how for years he had fought to get a nursing home in Bermagui, including working with IRT on this and other sites, and how this site may not have been suitable or large enough for a retirement village.
A heated exchange over the zoning ended the meeting with the council planner adamant that the council could have approved the supermarket at any time as it has always been zoned commercial, although state planning rules had for some time allowed senior living in commercial zones.
Mayor Bill Taylor could not give a definitive time on when the matter would be resolved saying it would be a matter of weeks with another meeting with between councillors and staff a possibility.
Mr Taylor congratulated Bermagui Chamber of Commerce president Scott Bradley for hosting and acting as referee in what was an emotional debate.
He noted that whatever decision council made, there would be people left unhappy.