Current owners of the troubled Hunter Economic Zone are pushing ahead with plans for a new residential and commercial precinct that they say will be one of the most sustainable in Australia.
The 3200 hectare patch of primarily bushland dubbed the HEZ, was initially intended to become a major employment hub for the Hunter Valley, but after a decade of interrupted development plans fell into disuse, becoming an illegal rubbish dump and unofficial burnout track.
Environmental concerns, including the protection of a critically endangered species of bird, led to rigid zoning protections which ruled out plans for a heavy industrial site, reportedly sending two companies into liquidation owing close to $100 million.
Current deed holders, the Hunter Investment Corporation was itself reportedly involved in plans to develop two new coal-fired power stations on the site, with HIC chairman Frank Cavasinni named as signing a deal with overseas entities to move ahead with the plan.
However, Cavasinni, who declined to be interviewed for this story, appears to have had a change of heart from continuing the Hunter Valley’s fossil-fuel burning legacy.
He is now taking a sustainability-based approach to making the HEZ a success, including the new community and commercial development, as well as the world’s largest grid connected battery.
Teaming up with Delos
Under a new partnership with Delos, which founded the globally recognised International WELL Building Institute, the HIC plans to deliver a state of the art precinct consisting of 3500 new homes and units and over 800 commercial and industrial buildings.
Green spaces, air quality and community well-being will be prioritised, as well as renewable energy in the form of rooftop solar panels with the aim of achieving a Gold WELL community accreditation. All of the homes will be fitted with Delos’s DARWIN Home Wellness ecosystem which monitors and controls air, water and light quality.
Delos Australia president Bill Giannikos told The Fifth Estate that the majority of the site would be retained as bushland which would also significantly bolster the community’s WELL rating.
Zoning restrictions preclude much of the land from development due to its environmental value, which is why the HEZ was saved from being turned into a heavy industrial park, as its various owners have intended.
According to Cessnock Council’s 2020 Local Strategic Planning statement, “as a result of these constraints, much of the HEZ will not witness any significant level of development and will not be the primary industrial precinct of interest in the future.”
Ecological surveys of the HEZ identified much of the 900 hectares of dense vegetation as suitable habitat for the critically endangered Regent Honeyeater as well as home to a number of threatened ecological communities including Lower Hunter Spotted Gum variants.
The Hunter Investment Corporation has used these zoning stipulations to its advantage, using the bush as a selling point that actually improves the WELL rating of the planned community.
“The greenery in that area has really started to take hold in a massive way. It’s a huge asset to the development when you look at it from a green perspective and a homeowners’ perspective,” Mr Giannikos said.
The commercial precinct will be separated from the residential area by a “wedge” of bushland, and include office and retail space as well as “light industrial activities.”
Commercial buildings at the HEZ will be certified by Delos’ workplace wellness subsidiary which focuses on health standards for commercial settings through infrastructure performance audits, design interventions and operational protocol vetting.
“Light industrial won’t be smelting or any form of heavy industrial like there used to be in Newcastle. This is really more around attracting that whole Silicon Valley take on it where we’ve got some smart technology being developed and manufactured there,” Giannikos said.
This week the federal government announced it would fund a $600 million dollar gas-fired power plant in Kurri Kurri, the same region as the HEZ.
Mr Giannikos said it makes sense that the government was looking to invigorate the region by creating jobs but he said there ways of doing it “smartly” as well.
According to Mr Giannikos work is underway on a pilot project to act as a display home and underground services were beginning to be installed on site.
“They’re also remediating some of the site there as well from what it was, a lot of rubbish was dumped there and they’re cleaning that up,” Mr Giannikos said.
He said that the final stages of planning for the residential site were in motion and the team were hoping to begin construction before the end of the year.