EXCLUSIVE: Planning authorities have rejected the development of a mega-commune on the New South Wales far north coast promoted by celebrity chef turned anti-science nutter, Pete Evans, and True Crime News Weekly was present for the meeting where it all went down. Gary Johnston with this warts-and-all account.
In these days of metropolitan lockdowns, curfews and restrictions, it’s the dream of many to escape to a bucolic destination in rural Australia: a place of mountain greenery, where the trials and tribulations of modern living can be forgotten amid the simple pleasures of benevolent Mother Nature.
‘Ah, can you feel it’, to quote classic Aussie movie “The Castle” – ‘the serenity’?
Such is the ambition of people attracted to a development called Nightcap on Minjungbul set in the majestic hinterland of the Tweed Coast of Northern New South Wales, a handful of kilometres from the world famous ‘free and easy’ town of Byron Bay but offering an engagement with the land the resident Hollywood superstars who’ve now rendered Byron exclusive and overpriced could only imagine.
Sadly, if the experience of the prior investors is anything to go by, for the hopeful people who have signed up for plots at the proposed Nightcap Village, the word, ‘serenity’ might well be replaced by ‘misery’.
Out story begins in 2015, when 642 acres of prime farmland was purchased by a mysterious conglomerate registered as Wollumbin Horizons Pty Ltd for $1.175 million, with plans to establish a community called the Bhula Bhula Intentional Community.
Unfortunately for all concerned, not least the 20 or so would-be residents, many of whom paid up to $80,000 per share which could later be parlayed into building sites, the promised 3 and 5 acre blocks, (later rising to $120,000) the land was sold without planning permission – (no council development applications were actually ever lodged) and after numerous complaints from people in adjoining land, the NSW Land and Environmental Court ordered the community to ‘cease habitation’ and remove all temporary homes with immediate effect.
Naturally, prospective commune dwellers – family groups, retirees and ‘tree changers’ amongst them, were left in fiscal limbo; not unreasonably, they asked for a refund.
Several people had actually started to build a property on the land, which were subsequently demolished, resulting in further financial loss, which became critical when Wollumbin Horizons was placed into voluntary administration in July 2017.
An aerial view of the ‘Nightcap’ land in question (Image: Supplied)
Investors and aspirant residents were initially attracted by the premise of a sustainable ‘commune’, where everyone benefited but no one exploited, largely drawing on the ideas of a man called Mark Darwin who led seminars on alternative living under the banner of a ‘philosophy he called ‘Truthology’.
It should be noted that Mr Darwin has said that his involvement in Bhula Bhula was limited to that of a ‘community member’ and claims that all interested parties were well aware that planning permission had neither been granted or inferred.
After the – some would say – inevitable decision of the Land and Environmental Court, the 20 irate, financially broken investors (with losses said to total $2.5m) thus found themselves in a legal dogfight complicated by allegations of infighting and lack of transparency on the part of the putative developers, a ‘directorship’ of 5 individuals including Adrian Brennock, a Gold Coast Realtor and subsequent bankrupt.
Ultimately, no one was refunded and many of the original homesteaders were left destitute and displaced.
(Paradoxically, some would say tragically, Bhula Bhula in the language of the local Bundjalung people means ‘harmony’.)
Then, following the disastrous denouement of the Bhula Bhula Intentional Community, a company called NCV Enterprises sans Mr Brennock but allegedly comprising his wife and two other individuals, Derek Zillman and Mark McMurtrie, purchased the land (now expanded to over 1600 hectares), renaming it Nightcap on Minjungbul or alternatively Nightcap Village.
This time, the promotion of land at Nightcap Village was aggressively marketed to prospective buyers through the use of high-quality video presentations and the involvement of certain Australian ‘celebrities’.
Step forward one time chef, oft-times conspiracy theorist and all-time weirdo Pete Evans, the undoubted ‘star’ of the Nightcap promotional campaign.
In the spruiking videos, Evans, dressed in a designer-bogan outfit of shorts and wifebeater singlet, waxes lyrical about the importance of ‘the land’ stating somewhat obliquely:
“Do no harm. It’s a pretty good fucking philosophy: you don’t need to go to church to learn that … it’s in us.”
Evans, on the very few occasions when he’s not talking self-promoting, nonsensical bollocks, denies that he has a commercial interest in Nightcap.
Despite the fact that there is still no planning permission, investors, presumably sold by images portrayed in the glamorised videos and for that matter, the confident recommendations of Paleo Pete are in, gum boots and all.
Up to 40 people have already bought shares or part shares in Nightcap at around $280,000 each. Prior to signing up, prospective residents are ‘vetted’ through a bespoke questionnaire which asks a number of personal questions pertaining to an investor’s religious belief, assets and pointedly, considering the involvement of leading anti-vaxxer Evans, their views on the current Covid-19 pandemic and whether they trust the efficacy of vaccines.
The vetting process fails however to warn the optimistic investor of the potential for litigation should the taste of Nightcap turn out to be bitter and unpleasant.
Worth bearing in mind for any prospective investor is the experience of a woman called Gillian Norman, an original Bhula Bhula buyer who paid S120,000 for a share unit in the original development. After being removed from the land, Ms Norman attempted to get her investment back but was unsuccessful after Wollumbin Horizons went into liquidation.
She was subsequently sued for asserting that the original sale was fraudulent, with the eventual decision of the New South Wales Supreme Court noting that whilst the development was ‘undoubtedly a debacle’, she was unable to provide evidence to support her essential claim.
In addition to issuing a restraining injunction, two men, the aforementioned Adrian Brennock and a man called Phillip Dixon were each awarded $200,000 plus legal costs. The Judge however, Justice Fagan, in his defamation ruling in July 2000 did say that the commune should not have solicited investments without verifying that the council would grant the relevant approvals.
This possibly explains the different approach now taken with the Nightcap development, attempting to identify not only people with ‘alternative’ lifestyle aspirations, but those in possession of a wildly optimistic mentality, since, not only is planning permission once again unlikely to be forthcoming, but the estimated costs of clearing the land, providing infrastructure, roads and sanitation would cost, literally millions of dollars – $16 million at a conservative estimate.
No one is saying where that money would be coming from, Tweed Valley council as the local authority, being it is suggested, not surprisingly less than keen to stump up the outstanding balance.
On Wednesday, 18 August the council’s planning panel held a four-hour meeting to consider the Nightcap application. True Crime News Weekly attended the meeting virtually.
Based on the council’s feasibility study and including numerous objections from various community groups, addressing such as issues as bushfire risk and the importance of wildlife corridors, (the area is home to several native species including rare padymelons and koalas, whose habitat, it seems would be adversely affected), the initial recommendation was to refuse the application.
This however was subject to a number of submissions from Nightcap’s team of experts, including barristers, planners and architects, a heavyweight – and no doubt expensive – cohort who figuratively threw everything at the wall, hoping it would stick, including the dubious notion that Nightcap would reduce the local dearth of ‘affordable’ housing whilst simultaneously raising the average age of the local population.
The meeting commenced at 3pm and close to 7 o’clock, a decision was reached.
On the grounds of Nightcap being a ‘prohibited development’.
Of course, they can appeal but it’s worth stating that State Planning Panels generally don’t refuse proposals unless they consider themselves to be on exceptionally solid ground.
And appeals, naturally, cost money. Someone’s money.
So, for some, whilst the idea of living on the land, communing with nature and getting back to basics was their initial and worthy motivation, perhaps it’s the case that, for others, including Pete Evans, the Nightcap concept actually has its basis in a far more fundamental, earthly reality.
And maybe we will find out when those 40 people who have laid out up to $280,000 in hard cash for a homesteading idyll that now looks highly doubtful, start to ask the age old question: can we have our money back?
Past experience suggests that for them, this particular Nightcap might turn out to be a cocktail that doesn’t exactly aid restful sleep, satisfaction and serenity.