Nick Carroll: One Billion Dollars! (Kelly's Pool Is Coming To Aus, But How?)

1 Dec 2019 15 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Photo: WSL/Vankirk

Photo: WSL/Vankirk

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

The WSL’s latest pool project relies on gaining approval for a $1 billion development … in a flood basin. What could possibly go wrong?

So we’ve all heard the news about Kelly’s Pool coming to Australia.

It’s been a bit hard to miss. Ever since the news broke, both here and on the Sunshine Coast where the Pool’s potential build site is located, it’s grown bigger and bigger.

When CW first spoke with Andrew Stark, WSL’s Oceania CEO, a few weeks back, it was central to a $100 million development, featuring athlete accommodation, various facilities, restaurants etc., and some residential in the form of canal estates.

Just a week later, according to a story published in the Sydney Morning Herald, it’d blown out to a billion-dollar mega-development, including much expanded canal estates, eco-resorts, and the like, in which the KSWC Pool will take its place stadium-style ready to greet thousands of spectators, presumably to major WSL sporting events.

$100 million to $1 billion in a week???

There’s no making sense of it. Until you take into account that the land upon which this $1 billion will possibly be lavished is a degraded flood plain which has resisted re-zoning for a generation.

But let’s take a step back and look at how it’s got this far.

The project reunites an Old Firm: Starky, the former head of Surfing Australia who’s been tasked by the WSL to get a KSWC Pool up and running here ASAP, and the successful property developer Don O’Rorke. It’s a beautiful confluence of interests. Starky needs land for a Pool. Don needs some fairy dust so he can develop the land.

O’Rorke, founder of Consolidated Properties, has a great eye for seemingly shitty coastal land. He sees a future where others see almost bugger-all.

He made his name with Casuarina on the NSW far north coast.

Back in the early ‘90s, prior to its re-branding as a 21st century Seachange paradise, the area was a piece of beaten-down coastal scrub just south of Kingscliff. Decades of sand-mining had flattened and stripped it of native vegetation. Not much was left other than bitou bush and remnant ti-tree swamp. Nobody went there bar a few fishermen and surfers hunting Cudgen Reef down the south end of the strip.

JUST WHY THE LAND HAS BEEN SO OFF LIMITS BECOMES CLEAR WHEN YOU LOOK AT FLOOD MAPPING FOR THE AREA.

But O’Rorke saw something — notably the approaching Baby Boomer real estate bubble, and the increasing popularity of places like Byron Bay and the southern Gold Coast. Everybody wanted to get away — but they still had to go to work.

He picked up the land for a song and did something most Aussie developers back then were too stupid to try: upgraded it. The freshly named Casuarina was deftly promoted as a home for new wave coastal architecture, the houses cleverly designed to appear individual yet congruent — and also cleverly, taking the eye off the actual landscape.

Looking for other ways to draw the eye, O’Rorke also teamed up with Surfing Australia — offering the body a piece of land for its HQ, in order to make Casuarina into “the home of Australian surfing”, as the promo put it.

Boom boom.

A few years later, with Don on his way to life membership of Surfing Australia and Starky driving plans for what would become the Hurley High Performance Centre, O’Rorke saw another opportunity.

This time it was the piece of land currently under discussion: 510 hectares of former sugar cane farm land just in from the Sunshine Coast Motorway near Coolum Beach. Just like the strip south of Kingscliff, this land was beaten down from prior use and lying fallow. Current Queensland State land use mapping describes it as a mix of marsh or swamp, drainage, or degraded and “in transition”.

This is code for, “Holy shit, do NOT try to develop here.”

The sugar cane farming has left it with soil degradation issues. But just why the land has been so off limits becomes clear when you look at flood mapping for the area

Flooding is the biggest disaster risk on the Sunshine Coast. There’s been some epic ones in living memory, probably topped by July 1973, when an errant cyclone grounded the Cherry Venture near Double Island Point and dropped 350mm of rain across the area in a single day.

When this sort of thing happens, the land just in from Coolum becomes a big natural retention basin serving the Maroochy River catchment, draining floodwaters away from higher ground and holding it so the river has a chance to disperse it out to sea.

Even a moderate riverine flood could put the land in question well underwater. A big one would layer up to 10 metres of floodwater across it.

Not just that. Things have changed along the Maroochy River since the big floods of 1973 and ’83; even since the last real wet year of 2007. The river is now lined with significant developments — apartments, holiday high rises, shopping centres, the lot.

Development in the flood plain could push the flood risk right on to those areas.

It’s so risky the Sunshine Coast Council has backed away from the whole issue, leaving it up to the State government to make the call.

But despite O’Rorke’s excellent relationship with the Queensland Government, Consolidated has been stalled on development approval at every turn. O’Rorke tried almost everything, even threatening to sand-mine it as a last resort. The sand mining didn’t go ahead. But neither did any development zoning.

If you’re going to get past such constraints, you really need a serious ace in the hole — which is where the Pool comes in.

It’s the development’s fairy dust: a unique international sporting facility, tuned for elite pro surfing events, in a place where everybody surfs! Kelly Slater! Steph Gilmore. Maybe Olympics. And so forth.

It’s a big part of winning the PR war with the local population.

Stark is adamant the whole thing can be done without environmental peril. “We’ve invested a lot of time and resources in this land,” he told CW. “There’s no way we’d have put this much effort into it if we thought we couldn’t pull it off.”

“THERE’S NO WAY WE’D HAVE PUT THIS MUCH EFFORT INTO IT IF WE THOUGHT WE COULDN’T PULL IT OFF.”

Now, maybe the wonders of modern engineering are up to the task of mitigating the significant risk represented by developing this land.

Indeed, an information document prepared by Consolidated and WSL quotes Dr Trevor Johnson, an engineer and flooding expert, as saying his modelling shows the flood risk to surrounding properties is negligible, and that the Pool itself will act as a retention basin in time of need. Dr Johnson works for SLR Consulting, an environmental management consultancy retained by Consolidated for the project.

But one thing’s not a “maybe” — there’ll be another flood. The Sunny Coast, like most of eastern Australia, has been drier than normal lately. But it’s only a couple of minor climate fluctuations away from another massive rainfall year.

And the WSL is still sorta recovering from its recent epic faux pas in Palm Beach Florida, where after spending several million dollars on a piece of near-coastal land and planning for two years to build a Pool on the site, it discovered the sub-surface water table was too high, and thus had to call the whole thing off.

There’s people in the organisation still reeling from that trauma.

You gotta hope for their sake, and maybe Starky’s, that history isn’t about to repeat.

Check out the council’s disaster hub map here.

See below Qld Govt flood mapping of the area. The land in question is just west and south of the morotway roundabout just above and right of centre in the images. They show the risk involved in a 1 in 100 year flood event.


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