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Residents upset by council’s plans to support Walka Water Works tourism development

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The Save Walka Reserve Community Alliance Inc (SWRCA) is hoping “people power” will sway Maitland City Council (MCC) into changing its position on the development of a caravan park on the site.

And, the organisation’s support base continues to grow every day.

In just a couple of hours at the weekend, almost 40 locals converged on the much-loved Walka Water Works to make their feelings known to the Newcastle Weekly.

Most were concerned about council’s lack of transparency and community engagement surrounding the project, although a DA is yet to be lodged.

A further 2,000-plus people have also signed a petition to stop a Reflections Holiday Park from being established in Maitland’s most precious community green space.

Maitland’s Walka Water Works. Photo: Kat Forrest | Good Thanks Media

In October 2022, it was announced the Heritage-Listed Walka Water Works could soon be home to a $25 million accommodation hub under a proposal to transform it into a Hunter tourism icon.

The NSW Government, Reflections and council were joining forces on a funding bid for the 64-hectare Crown Lands reserve to be submitted to the Regional Tourism Activation Fund.

Under the plan, the Department of Planning and Environment, as well as MCC, will remediate, restore and upgrade the site.

Reflections would also establish caravan and camping facilities.

The projected site improvements included:

  • Restoring the 1885 Pumphouse building and chimney back to their original condition to preserve their heritage and allow tourism and hospitality businesses to flourish, such as an interpretive centre, cafés, restaurants, craft brewery or distillery, and event functions;
  • Establishing overnight visitor accommodation starting with 10 eco-cabins and 40-powered caravan sites, as well as a camp kitchen and barbecue area;
  • Upgrading the eastern lawn with landscaping and infrastructure for weddings and other events
  • Redeveloping the miniature train railway station as an improved visitor experience;
  • Upgrading walking trails to improve accessibility and include interpretive information;
  • Developing a centralised amenities building, upgrading car parking to meet accessibility standards, and other infrastructure improvements

But, SWRCA members are strongly opposed to the multi-million-dollar venture.

“A caravan park will have a detrimental impact on the local ecosystem while offering nothing for the Maitland community,” campaigner Rachael King said.

“Unless you are planning a wedding at Walka, there is zero value in this for locals.

“No extra play equipment or water play for the children or resurrection of the miniature train line and no education centre where visitors can learn more about the wildlife and impressive history of the Heritage-Listed site.

“Council and local state members should be lobbying the NSW Government for Maitland’s fair share of funding for Walka, with no strings attached.

“We believe Maitland is taking the hit for the state government’s aggressive housing development target in the region and our LGA now has less than 7% native remnant bushland remaining.”

Save Walka Reserve Community Alliance Inc members at the proposed site for a Reflections Holiday Park at Walka Water Works. Photo: Rod Thompson

Ms King argued more value must be placed on green space for the community… not less.

“With the high cost of living not everyone can afford to take their family on paid excursions,” she said.

“Our community pays among the highest rates in the state and deserve one area where we can access nature free of charge.

“SWRCA members are saying loud and clear ‘yes’ to the grant and ‘no’ to a caravan park.

“There is provision within the terms and conditions of the grant for it to be altered.

“The community has built a solid case for handing back the Reflections Holiday Parks portion and retaining the remaining negotiated funds to improve Walka for environmental and community benefit.

“So, we’d like our elected (local and state) representatives to get on board, listen to the people of Maitland and do the same.

“Funding tied to a caravan park where the main beneficiaries are not the people of Maitland isn’t a good deal for our community.

“We refuse to stand back and allow Walka to be exploited for commercial gain.

“Council will likely say Reflections is a ‘profit for purpose’ entity.

“We don’t dispute that.

“However, they operate with a commercial imperative and the majority of profits they make will be used to fund operations in other parts of NSW and add to their portfolio of holiday parks.”

The popular Walka Water Works.
The popular Walka Water Works. Photos: Peter Stoop

Maitland residents were recently invited to put their interest forward for a new community liaison group, which will help guide the future staged re-opening of Walka Water Works.

However, SWRCA deems the move “very much a case of after the horse has bolted”.

“A group of 15 people selected by the council, to a large degree with no power to influence, is not rigorous consultation,” Ms King said.

“We’re calling for a public meeting with councillors and the MCC executive team to face community questions.

“So far, the lack of public engagement and transparency around the process is a major concern for us.

“We feel council has misled the community since October.

“The wide community engagement MCC claims to have undertaken is in the form of a Destination Management Plan (DMP).

“That’s an information gathering tool, it is not designed to engage on any single specific idea.

“The word ‘caravan’ appears six times within this 52-page document compiled in 2020 and there is only one mention of ‘caravan accommodation’ at Walka among hundreds of community ideas for Maitland as a whole.

“Grant applications opened on 2 August and council had six weeks to meaningfully consult with the community before putting it to the vote in council chambers.

“With all the tools at their disposal, such as Maitland Your Say and online polls, there is no excuse for this not to have happened.”

An artist’s impression of stage one of the Walka Water Works’ Pumphouse.

The Hunter Bird Observers Club also lodged a letter of objection to MCC last year.

The organisation raised concerns about the possibility of Reflections Holidays Parks extending its boundaries into other areas of the reserve.

“Council released a map showing cabins on the opposite side of the lake, closer to the precious wetland, in stage two,” a spokesperson said.

“But, night-time noise and light pollution would be devastating for the animals.”

Other fears include environmental impacts, mental health and wellbeing, flood isolation, legislative and regulatory compliance issues, inadequate road infrastructure and traffic effects.

Bolwarra resident Camille Adams said accommodation at Walka Water Works would alter the entire ambience of the site.

“It will diminish the appeal and amenity of the reserve for our community,” she explained.

“Residents need green space now more than ever to connect with nature for mental health and wellbeing.

“We don’t want overnight accommodation or festivals for thousands.

“Surely council can find somewhere else within the Maitland LGA more suited and better connected than our only green haven.”

Bird life at Walka Water Works.

Walka Water Works was established as a Crown Land public reserve in the 1980s as an area to offset housing development.

In the years since, it’s become a wildlife haven, with a deep-water wetland environment and Endangered Ecological Community (EEC) bushland, which is important habitat for kangaroos, turtles and more than 200 bird species, including those endangered and vulnerable.

SWRCA campaigners will now take the fight to the decision-makers within the NSW Government.

“We’re seeking meetings with relevant local and portfolio MPs and departmental representatives in an effort to gain their commitment to revisit the scope of the funding to prioritise the preservation of the natural site, allow Maitland City Council to retain their negotiated portion of grant funds and to stop the caravan park,” Ms King said.

“Walka is all we have… and once it’s gone, it’s gone.

“The Save Walka crusade will not end until Walka is given the highest level of protection it deserves.

“We want future generations to be able to enjoy their own area of peace and connect with nature in this increasingly urban environment.”

SWRCA is hosting its first public event in May and more information about the campaign can be found at Save Walka Reserve Community Alliance Facebook Group https://www.facebook.com/groups/574612057865223/ and the change.org petition Say NO to Walka Holiday Park at https://www.change.org/NoToWalkaHolidayPark

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