EACH day, Chris Richards wakes to the knowledge that his biggest dream threatens to become his biggest failure and has pushed him into the biggest fight of his life.
Mr Richards is not your typical property developer.
He sank all he has financially and emotionally into a dream - a world-class heritage train collection and museum he has spent millions on that is situated on land at North Rothbury he bought from Coal and Allied in 1990.
Now, every time he looks at the deteriorating collection of more than 100 rail carriages and 10 engines, housed on the same land now owned by the new Huntlee Estate subdivision, his resolve to fight hardens.
Which is helpful, because Mr Richards' not-for-profit Hunter Valley Railway Trust (HVRT), which owns the historic train collection, is in one hell of a battle.
The 70-year-old's company was served with an eviction notice in January last year and after it refused to move off the Huntlee land, it is now locked in a NSW Supreme Court battle against the development that threatens to destroy the $10 million collection and bankrupt Mr Richards.
Its progress versus preservation, as one of Australia's largest heritage railway collections fights for survival on the grounds of the massive subdivision.
The eviction notice was the first step in a David and Goliath legal battle involving the owners of the $1.5 billion Huntlee Estate, the Hunter's first new town in more than half a century, and the HVRT, a charity that was set up to maintain and restore Australian rail heritage.
It's a hotly contested dispute that will play out at a hearing in the Sydney Supreme Court set down for February next year.
In the Huntlee corner, under the name of the estate's land-holding company - Misthold Pty Ltd - is a partnership between one of Australia's richest families, the Kahlbetzers, namely Johnny Kahlbetzer, and his business partner Danny Murphy's Perth-based LWP Group, which is one of Western Australia's leading land developers.
The Kahlbetzer family is best known for its ownership of Twynam Agriculture founded by Johnny Kahlbetzer's father, billionaire John Kahlbetzer, which was at one stage the state's largest rural property owner.
The BRW Rich List claimed John Kahlbetzer was worth $730 million in 2010 and the Australian Financial Review valued him at $1.7 billion in 2019.
Facing the Huntlee juggernaut is the HVRT, run by Maitland resident Mr Richards, a self-confessed train fanatic and tireless defender of Australia's rapidly dwindling railway heritage.
And the stakes are high.
Mr Richards and others have been collecting the railway heritage items since the late 1960s and put together what was once one of the largest private railway collections in the world boasting more than 200 heritage items.
If HVRT loses the court case, Mr Richards said "everything left in the collection could be gone" and he will face financial ruin.
The world-class collection includes an intact carriage from the commuter train in the 1977 Granville rail disaster, a complete Newcastle Flyer, an Intercapital Daylight train which ran from Sydney to Melbourne for 30 years until 1991, a "haunted" carriage from an unsolved murder and General Douglas MacArthur's Australian rail carriage from World War II.
"There's literally been hundreds of people, volunteers, families, all sorts of community members on this journey for the whole period of time," Mr Richards said.
"The damage and loss to the collection to date as this whole thing has played out, which is a huge loss to the community, has been devastating and the trust has ended up with an enormous debt that I've basically funded out of my own personal pocket.
"In 2012, I had to sell my house and I've had to offload other assets. It has almost sent me bankrupt. If I lose the court case I'll lose everything and that's a difficult thing to explain to my family and the community."
Huntlee, a massive development, is projected to meet 6.5 per cent of the government's housing needs in the Lower Hunter in the next 20 years.
It has a projected population of 20,000, rivalling Singleton, with a 200-hectare town centre surrounded on three sides by four separate villages comprising 7500 homes by 2040.
The town's advertising promises "cradle to the grave" living, with land size and facilities to cater for all stages of life.
One thing is clear in the murky legal dispute that signals crunch time for the heritage collection and massive subdivision: the two sides are patently at odds about what has taken place.
LWP Group executive chairman Mr Murphy said over an "extended period of time" the developer had "endeavoured to work" with HVRT regarding the future of the collection, including discussions about relocating the rolling stock.
He said Huntlee "strongly refutes a number of assertions" raised by HVRT, which would be tested during the court case.
According to Mr Richards, the railway collection presents a "major headache" for the new town, as its associated 5km of railway line, the oldest continually operating colliery branch line in Australia that was classified by the National Trust last year, cuts straight through the subdivision.
The railway line was the centre of the infamous Rothbury riot after it was used to bring in scab labour to the Ayrfield Colliery in 1929 causing an uprising that ended with police firing on a group of protesting miners, killing one and injuring 45 others.
Mr Richards said if HVRT was granted ownership of the museum site and railway line, the developer would need permission to cross the tracks and build roads across it.
"With HVRT on that land it is devastating to their subdivision," Mr Richards said.
"They want their site back and they are desperate to get back the railway line that divides their subdivision.
"If we are granted ownership of the museum site and railway line, they wouldn't be able to put their roads across the line or their infrastructure.
"They would need our permission to go on with their subdivision. I do believe we could co-exist, but they want us gone."
The train collection and associated museum is nestled in the grounds of the former Ayrfield Colliery, off Wine Country Road, at North Rothbury, which closed in 1975 after decades of operation.
It has been on the site since 1990 when Mr Richards bought the land off Coal and Allied for $1.6 million to start the museum, after he purchased seven South Maitland Railways 10 class steam locomotives from the coal company.
Mr Richards said he planned to take the fight "right to the end", even "if it sends me bankrupt".
He is doing it, he said, to save the collection, as much for the community as for himself. Because behind the dispute over land at Huntlee, lies the bigger question of why heritage matters.
Mr Richards said the development was threatening to obliterate the museum, its glorious collection and every story it represents.
"This is something that belongs to the community, something that belongs to everybody," he said.
"It's just not good enough and I'm willing to put everything on the line to fight it."
Through the course of his long and complicated history with the site, Mr Richards has lost millions and spent decades trying to preserve the collection that includes Australian train carriages from as far back as the 1890s.
When Mr RIchards sold his stake - the former Coal and Allied land - in the original Huntlee development, which has changed hands since, HVRT negotiated a lease agreement at no cost to keep the collection on the site, but the lease expired in June 2012 and the legal headaches began.
Part of the incentive to sell his land, was a provision in the lease for Misthold to provide up to 20 hectares of suitable land to house the collection at no cost, either at the colliery site, or another suitable site.
The agreement also required the developer, if it required the collection to move, to pay $5 million towards relocation.
But when the lease came to an end, negotiations between Mr Richards and the new Huntlee developer, LWP Group, stalled after a ''potential railway museum site'' near the Hunter EXpressway was included on the Huntlee New Town masterplan in 2011.
Mr Richards said the location was "completely unsuitable" because it was on the side of a hill, was almost impossible to access because it wasn't flat and would have put working steam locomotives near a major road.
He said HVRT was then refused permission to sublease the museum site, as it had done for more than a decade which brought in about $250,000 a year to help maintain the site and collection, and the financial strain began to mount.
"By May 2012 HVRT was in such severe financial difficulty it could no longer look after its vast railway collection," Mr Richards said.
"We were desperate and entered into complicated negotiations about the site and the future of the collection in good faith when we could not afford legal representation."
After more than a year of negotiations, a public announcement was made in late 2012 that LWP Group and HVRT had agreed on the collection's future.
Huntlee declined to comment publicly this week on exactly its version of events, apart from Mr Murphy confirming the developer refuted "a number of assertions made by HVRT".
"These will be tested as part of court proceedings due to be heard by the Supreme Court in early 2022," he said.
Mr Richards' version is that "under extreme financial pressure", HVRT agreed to surrender the leases for the museum site and railway line, lift caveats it had on the land and within 12 months reduce the size of the collection, that it had spent millions of dollars on and decades putting together, in exchange for the establishment of a new not-for-profit trust to run a railway museum to house the collection in conjunction with Huntlee.
He claims the reduced railway collection, worth about $10 million, was to be transferred at no cost to the new museum trust and Misthold agreed to pay HVRT $650,000, which Mr Richards said went towards paying debts, repairs and maintenance, and the rest of the funds were planned to be spent on moving the railway items to the new museum trust.
A new lease was entered into for the museum site and railway line and Mr Richards said he understood it would run until a new museum trust was established.
According to Mr Murphy the new lease expired in 2015.
"The ongoing discussions with Hunter Valley Railway Trust have included options for relocation of the rolling stock," he said.
"To assist with and allow for the relocation of the stock, Huntlee negotiated an extension to the original lease to HRVT and was fully compliant with the conditions of the original lease and the extension.
"The final lease expired in 2015."
In November 2012, the Newcastle Herald reported that the collection would be preserved, maintained or auctioned.
According to a media release, put out under the names Huntlee and HVRT, the two entities had entered into an agreement for the long-term management, ownership, restoration and running of the historic railway collection at North Rothbury.
At the time, Mr Richards said the "joint-venture partnership will now ensure this historic railway collection stays at North Rothbury and will be displayed and incorporated into the Huntlee development site".
"Hunter Valley Railway Trust will complete restoration of various rolling stock and locomotives at North Rothbury and other sites for running heritage trains in NSW and other parts of the country," Mr Richards said.
The media release stated that the site would be developed as a public area, railway museum and restoration site.
But it didn't take long before the gloss of the media announcement started to wear off.
Mr Richards said as part of the deal, he agreed against his better judgement, to reduce the size of the collection, that used to be one of the largest in the world, in an effort to ensure a perpetuity railway museum trust was established.
"We were only to send across the items that were core to our survival, the items we could run on the main line and that we wanted to put in the final museum," he said.
"We had 12 months to get rid of everything.
"We went on a massive clearing sale out there and we got rid of a huge amount of heritage items that we never should have gotten rid of.
"We cut stuff up. We gave it away. We sold it off ridiculously cheap just to get rid of it."
HVRT and Mr Richards faced a great deal of public criticism for culling the collection, which included selling off the seven heritage-listed South Maitland Railways 10 class locomotives.
After he failed to get local interest to buy the steam trains, Mr Richards sold them to Dorrigo Steam Railway and Museum.
Offers to split the seven locomotives and sell them for more money to individual collectors were declined.
"I was determined that they would stay together as a collection," he said.
"It was difficult enough having to sell them, it wasn't about the money."
At the time, HVRT and Mr Richards were attacked on social media for selling off parts of the collection that was eventually cut in half.
"A lot of people were very angry and upset and I couldn't explain at the time what was going on," Mr Richards said.
"We were facing bankruptcy and trying to save the collection."
An emotional Mr Richards said pulling apart his life's work took a huge emotional toll on himself and many others involved with the collection over decades.
"It was heart breaking to see so much of the collection pulled apart in an effort to try and save the rest," he said.
"The process completely destroyed the collection and its concept of collecting whole train sets as they ran in service."
Mr Richards said he was "devastated" that a perpetuity railway museum trust was never established for the remainder of the collection and said he was later told that Huntlee was only interested in a few carriages, including General MacArthur's carriage, and maybe an engine for a display.
"I said no, no, no that's not what we agreed on," he said. "From that day on I said: 'Well you can go to hell. I'm staying on the site and you can evict me'."
Mr Richards estimates the losses incurred during the sell-off in 2013 amounted to more than $11 million.
He said Huntlee offered another site, but he was told the $5 million to move the collection, the sheds and the railway line was not on offer because it was agreed to under different owners and the company, Huntlee Holdings, was liquidated in 2011.
"We couldn't afford to move and we were left absolutely high and dry," he said.
Mr Murphy said "ongoing discussions" with HVRT included options for relocation of the rolling stock.
According to Mr Richards, a valuer estimated in 2012 that the two HVRT North Rothbury lease sites, the museum site and railway line, were worth up to $6 million as operating railway land.
He said that's what he was prepared to give up, and the collection, in order to get a perpetuity museum trust established.
The same valuer recently valued the lease sites at up to $10 million as operating railway land.
Mr Richards said if HVRT loses the court battle it will be evicted from the site and forced into liquidation.
"They have the best lawyers and the best barristers and there's no doubt we're up against it," he said.
"We're facing oblivion. If I lose the case they'll want me off there as quickly as possible and the collection will be lost.
"But I am not going to give in. There is enormous support in the community, locally and Australia-wide, for heritage tourist trains. This is an extremely important issue and I'll fight to the end to save what is left of the collection."
HVRT has lodged a cross claim in the Supreme Court against Misthold, estimating the replacement cost of all disposed railway items at almost $220 million.
"I think a lot of people would have given up by now," Mr Richards said. "I'm determined to keep going, whether I win or lose, because I know what the community has already lost. It's heritage that we cannot afford to lose any more of."
HVRT has engaged Aqua Law to represent it in the Supreme Court.
The Sydney-based firm is no stranger to representing underdogs after taking on a class action for farmers against the Murray Darling Basin Authority where southern irrigators are claiming in excess of $750 million for alleged government incompetence.
Aqua Law director Benjamin Horne said this week that Huntlee's actions would not pass the "pub test".
"I really hope the community gets behind Chris and what he is trying to achieve," Mr Horne said.
"This case is not about money and that is why it has been so difficult to find a litigation funder to back this matter.
"At the end of the day the community has to make a call, do they stand by and let this billion dollar development erase a unique slice of Australian history just so the Huntlee residents can save two minutes driving to the shops? Personally I think that would be a sad loss for all Australians."
Mr Richards plans to start a GoFundMe campaign to help fund HVRT's legal case.
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