Essex House, Killara

Photo of pavement and driveway at Essex House
25 September 2018

Mr ALISTER HENSKENS (Ku-ring-gai) (12:56:30): The area occupied by my electorate is often referred to as "the leafy North Shore". It is a very apt description, and Ku-ring-gai residents understandably treasure their tree-lined streets and bushland surrounds. As much as we love our trees, they are nonetheless capable of causing dangerous problems for those who live near them. During wild storms, branches often break off and can cause damage to houses and motor vehicles, a regrettable fact of life in Ku-ring-gai. Also unwelcome is the damage caused by tree roots, which can be substantial. In the case of a tree on the nature strip outside a 28‑apartment complex, roots are actually blocking driveway access for two dozen mostly elderly residents. The blue gum's roots have lifted the road, the footpath and, most disturbingly, the private concrete driveway belonging to the unit block, known as Essex House in Killara.

It is impossible to enter or leave the premises without the underside of the vehicle hitting the pavement, which, in some cases, precludes any access. A number of residents claim that they are now trapped in their homes because they cannot go out as much as they would like. Meanwhile, their friends and many services, including Meals on Wheels, have decided to stop coming to the block because of the inevitable costly damage that would result from a visit, causing some residents to abandon the building and their independent living. The now steep driveway also presents a slip hazard, particularly when it is wet. For those vehicles that can still access the premises, exiting is dangerous because cars must now stay on the far right of the driveway to exit, which necessitates a turn into fast oncoming traffic. There is no ease of access for emergency vehicles, removalists or delivery vans.

The offending tree is on Ku-ring-gai Council land, and for six years the residents of Essex House have been complaining without success to Ku-ring-gai Council. The residents have offered to plant three or more blue gum trees on the property, away from the driveway, if they are allowed to remove the offending tree, but the council will not give consent to that course of action. Council has offered to pay half of the cost of shaving the driveway down, but the residents believe that that will just be a short-term fix, rendering the driveway more susceptible to cracking and to further lifting as the tree continues to grow.

The residents of Essex House are not alone in experiencing frustration in dealing with local government in respect of damage caused by trees on council land. Three years ago, roots from a tree in Annandale entered a property and caused damage at the side of the entrance to the house, which resulted in a stand-off with the former Leichhardt Municipal Council. Last year, a woman in Victoria applied to her local council for $25,000 in compensation after her driveway and drainpipes had been damaged by tree roots.

The concern here is that councils are putting trees before residents. In the case of Essex House, the aging residents believe that Ku-ring-gai Council is prioritising the blue gum over issues of personal safety, property damage and ease of egress and ingress, which is making them prisoners in their own homes. They cannot and should not have to pay large amounts of money in litigation against their own local council to get a resolution. This stand-off has caused great harm. Several residents are too scared to drive out, not least because the slope in the driveway prevents them from having a clear view of the passing cars. They are also understandably reluctant to ask friends to enter the property to pick them up out of concern that their cars will be damaged.

The result is that they will face ongoing isolation until such time as the situation is adequately addressed. The strata committee has been proactive in suggesting engineering solutions but they have all been rejected by the council, apart from the offer to shave the driveway in exchange for a full legal release in favour of the council. It is not acceptable in circumstances such as these for councils simply to stop all direct contact with residents, refer the matter to their insurers and allow a legal process to take its protracted course when it concerns an issue that was identified six years ago, poses a serious ongoing and worsening threat to safety, and hinders the provision of emergency services.

Moreover, those who are affected by the danger and the continuation of the unsatisfactory status quo are elderly often fragile people who have neither the resources nor the energy to engage in costly litigation or even seek professional advice for a problem that is not of their making and for which reasonable remedies have been proposed. This is a time when they should be enjoying comfortable independent lives, not going into battle against an insensitive and well-resourced local council. We all want to keep Ku-ring-gai leafy but not at the expense of the safety and wellbeing of our citizens. That is too high a price for the preservation of a tree.

I call on those leading Ku-ring-gai Council to be compassionate and show urgent leadership to resolve this sorry situation impacting upon vulnerable citizens. This impasse has been going on for far too long. I recently met with residents from the building. They expressed to me firsthand the considerable angst and lack of amenity that this issue has caused to their lives. I call on Ku-ring-gai Council to resolve this issue.