We should all be thankful that the Greens council which makes the decisions at Byron Shire isn’t in charge of Venice. Or New Orleans. Or London. Or Holland. All of those places would be flooded or submerged if they followed Byron Shire’s environmental policy of “planned retreat”.

This is a policy created by the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change. If and when, perhaps sometime later this century, the sea begins to rise around the coastline of Australia, DECC says we should give up and walk away from things we have built up since 1788. Low-lying coastal towns, large parts of our cities, roads, bridges, beachfront houses — they should all just be abandoned to the waves.

None of that has happened yet, but here in Byron Bay we’ve just had a little taste of what might occur when it does. The local Greens and some sympathisers who dominate Byron Shire Council rushed enthusiastically into the climate change fray during the recent east coast storms.

Beaches were chewed away and the erosion left some houses in the suburb of Belongil rather closer to the waterfront than their owners would have preferred. They were to be disappointed when they sought help from their Council. You’re on your own, they were told. Didn’t anyone tell you about planned retreat?

Being a self-reliant bunch and determined to protect their property, several of the residents arranged for deliveries of big sandbags known as geobags and the machinery to put them in place. That was when they found that Byron Shire Council was actually batting for the other team. They did their absolute best to hinder and oppose the residents of Belongil. Council enforcement officers arrived to force them to stop all protective measures.

One owner found himself in the NSW Land and Environment Court, where he spent several hundred thousand dollars fighting the Council for the right to stop his front yard falling into the Pacific Ocean. Lawyers’ letters from other beachfront residents have since been flowing into the Council, demanding the right to protect their properties. Mayor Jan Barham was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald last Monday as saying “each day we get a new legal threat.”

While other councils in the region have done their bit for residents all along the coast, Byron Shire Council has been sitting on its hands for weeks. Large chunks cut from the faces of dunes have left massive sand cliffs suspended perilously close to collapse, posing serious danger to children playing on the beach or people strolling by. The only road into the suburb is close to the brink.

Byron Shire Council claims their policy of planned retreat from rising sea levels is behind their opposition to permitting Belongil residents to protect their properties. Professor Ralf Buckley, Director of the International Centre for Ecotourism Research, Griffith University, Queensland, disagrees. In a paper published in Tourism Review International in 2008, he argued that the Council has “consistently and insistently acted against available evidence on climate change and related processes, and in the process has caused significant social and economic damage to the tourism industry and investment”.

In contrast to the Tweed and Gold Coast areas, and other coastal shires further south, he believes the Byron council has taken “an almost panic-stricken and highly politicised approach to potential sea level rise. In the process, it has caused damage to its tourism industry and its property values, undermining the town’s major source of employment and the Council’s own rate base”.

Byron Shire Council has just voted to put its “coastal management zone plan” on exhibition for public comment. It describes planned retreat as “a coastal management approach that acknowledges coastal processes and hazards as ongoing natural phenomena”. Under the scheme, property owners whose homes are within 20 metres of the ‘erosion escarpment’ will be required to demolish them and remove the debris at their own expense.

So keen are the Byron Greens to get moving that surveyors have already been at work at Belongil, checking out houses that might be the first to receive demolition orders. These could include the homes of a few fairly well-heeled citizens, but also a lot of less affluent residents such as the widowed lady in her 80’s whose home is her only asset. The fact that she lost her previous home in the Victorian bushfires of 1983 cuts no ice with the Council’s Green clique.

Community losses as a result of this folly will be huge: goodwill, millions in rates to the Council, affordable housing stock (of which Belongil contains a significant quantity) and employment. The small businesses at Belongil employ around a hundred people. The waste of resources in the destruction of homes and property will be enormous.

Unless the NSW Minister for Planning, Kristina Keneally, and Minister for Local Government, Barbara Perry, fail to prod Byron Shire Council into taking some sensible action over this issue, several hundred million dollars of prime real estate will be rendered worthless. An iconic Australian holiday town is in danger as a result of a conflict that will scar the social fabric of this area for decades.

*It’s time to declare an interest in this whole sorry saga: my wife and I have a townhouse at Belongil. Before the current drama began it was worth around $650,000.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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