Melbourne Weekly Bayside
by Beau Donelly
CSIRO shelved an unfavourable environmental assessment of its controversial Highett site while it commissioned a second, less onerous report, documents reveal.
The government science body commissioned the two reports ahead of the sale of its 9.5 hectare site, which has been slated for residential development for the past 10 years.
The Commonwealth-owned land, bordered by Graham Road and Middleton Street, includes several rare native trees and expanses of natural grasslands.
The first environmental report, commissioned in January 2011, recommended 33 trees and a significant area of natural habitat be preserved.
A second report, by another company, advised that just 24 trees and a smaller parcel of land be excluded from development.
CSIRO held on to the first report and took almost a year to pass it to Bayside council.
But it sent the second assessment, commissioned only after CSIRO received a draft of the first report, to the council just two months after receiving it.
The revelations have sparked accusations that the CSIRO was ‘‘opinion shopping’’.
Biosis Research, which has been employed by CSIRO since 2004 to manage native vegetation at the site, was commissioned to do the first study. It reported its preliminary recommendations to CSIRO on February 16, 2011.
Four weeks later, CSIRO commissioned Brett Lane & Associates to conduct the same study.
In an email to CSIRO property resources manager Ross Stevens – obtained under FOI legislation from the agency’s town planning consultant, Urbis – the BL&A report was labelled “an improvement on the original”.
The April 18 email from Urbis director Sarah Emons outlined the differences between the two reports, noting that BL&A identified 24 trees worth preserving, compared with 33 in the Biosis report. It also said the second study only identified one habitat zone compared to four in the first.
Mr Stevens denied the CSIRO was opinion shopping. “It was appropriate to get a second report,” he said, adding that the Biosis report recommended preserving areas that were not identified as having conservation value.
Ms Emons said the email referred to Biosis straying from its brief, which was to assess the ecological value of the site.
“Biosis took it on themselves to advocate what they thought was appropriate planning for the site,” she said. “They expressed an opinion.”
But Friends of Highett Grassy Woodlands spokeswoman Pauline Reynolds said the Biosis report had been shelved.
“The report was hidden,” she said. “It’s appropriate to commission two reports, but I’d expect them to be at the same time.’’
Mr Stevens said the 2011 Biosis report was not initially provided to Bayside council because it was “substantially similar” to a 2004 Biosis report already in the council’s possession.
Asked why the similar report was eventually made public, Mr Stevens said: “We wanted to make sure there was a balance and appropriate consideration to the conservation areas.
“We may have initially led with BL&A report but we have provided them with the Biosis report as well.”
Bayside council has said it wants to preserve up to four hectares of the Highett block for conservation and open space.
Ms Reynolds said there were “glaring differences” between the two reports.
“BL&A misidentified the rare yellow box trees that were first recorded at the site in 1939,” she said. “We’ve been propagating from the yellow box for the past eight years and they didn’t even see them. It’s appalling that so-called experts failed to identify native trees.”
CSIRO offered to renew Biosis’ contract to manage conservation at the Highett site last year but Biosis declined.
Bayside council has since hired the company to review the BL&A report and is expected to post the review on its website this week.