By Sean Nicholls
Updated 29 October 2016

At 53, Con Passas wasn’t anticipating having to move home any time soon after buying his apartment and business in the same block on Botany Road in Waterloo in 2010 and 2011.

But then along came stage two of the $12 billion Sydney Metro rail line.

When he first learned his properties were to be acquired for the project, Mr Passas immediately thought of the controversy over forced acquisitions for the $16.8 billion WestConnex motorway.

Con Passas lives and works at Waterloo.

“We saw the bad press but thought a good proportion of the owners were a bit emotional,” he said. “But it’s all true!”

In late August, Mr Passas, like the other 15 apartment and business owners in his block, received letters outlining compensation offers from Sydney Metro.

Not only were the offers at least $100,000 below what Mr Passas believes is fair market value, the agency informed him that he had 21 days to accept after which they are “deemed to be withdrawn”.

“We’re people who want to abide by the law, but the negativity and the pushing causes stress,” he said. “It’s just not fair.”

The practice has prompted Sydney lawyer David Newhouse to ask transport minister Andrew Constance for an “urgent review” of the agency’s “unfair tactics”.

Mr Newhouse, whose firm Newhouse and Arnold Solicitors represents more than a dozen owners dealing with Sydney Metro, told Mr Constance on October 21 the practice is “placing unnecessary pressure on clients when trying to resolve these claims”.

He told Fairfax Media: “I have never seen such tactics used by a NSW Government agency in my 20 years of law practice in compulsory acquisition.”

The revelation comes shortly after Premier Mike Baird announced an overhaul of the compulsory acquisition system in response to increasing concerns about fairness.
Mr Constance has yet to respond to the letter and declined to comment.

Sydney Metro program director Rodd Staples said the 21-day expiry period “represents an offer that’s made at the end of a process of engagement with the property owner and their representatives” that typically takes several months.

“It’s designed to make sure that we do move through the acquisition and negotiation process in a timely fashion and to get feedback from the owner about whether they want to consider an alternative offer,” he said.

Mr Staples said where extensions are requested “typically we have extended the time where it’s reasonable. We have no intention of trying to pressure owners in this process”.

But Mr Newhouse noted that the Land Acquisition (Just Terms Compensation) Act says owners are entitled to fair market value.

“Threatening owners that if they do not accept the government’s offer it will be withdrawn is not in the spirit of the Act,” he said.

Opposition transport spokeswoman Jodi McKay said the practice was “completely unscrupulous and demonstrates agencies are setting their own rules around compulsory acquisition”.

“It comes back to the culture of the organisation, which is established from the very top,” she said.

“If the transport minister thinks this is the appropriate way to behave, then he is not fit for his job.”

Sean Nicholls is the State Political Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.