Byron Shire mayor Simon Richardson has lashed out at fellow councillor Sol Ibrahim after he pushed through a motion last week effectively rejecting an offer by scientists and economists to help the council manage the Shire’s pristine coastline.
Instead the council will pay more money to a contractor whose draft cost benefit analysis the state government has already rejected, a move that will push the long-awaited Coastal Zone Management Plan even further behind schedule.
The strategy could also see the potential erosion of Belongil Beach, one of Australia’s most iconic surfing beaches.
And with the support of Crs Wanchap, Cubis, Woods and Hunter, Cr Ibrahim also rejected an offer by the NSW Office Of Environment And Heritage (OEH) to redo a cost benefit analysis for the planned Belongil rock wall at no cost to council.
As reported in The Echo previously, the Belongil rock wall project aims to protect high-priced sand- dune real estate, specifically three private properties and some Council-managed land.
But it’s over budget, has been kept secret, is close to losing state funding and has been criticised by expert scientists who deal with coastal planning.
Additionally, no contribution offer has been publicly announced by the landowners, making the cost to ratepayers unknown.
Nearly $22,000 of public money was splashed at the project last week, earmarked for lawyers and consultants. That adds to the estimated $142,500 already spent since January. Apart from funding the project, there are expected upkeep costs of ‘nourishing’ the beach with imported sand to prevent depletion.
As for the offer of help from the OEH, Cr Ibrahim claims that the department is trying to take ‘control of the process’.
He told The Echo, ‘The OEH steering committee excludes all stakeholders and councillors. Only staff are invited, and that is mainly so that property information could be provided at the early stages of the process.’ He also claims that Council staff are ‘frustrated with the OEH and confused with the inconsistent advice provided.’
‘The advice from the OEH has been heeded, and will inform the revision of our cost benefit analysis by the consultants,’ he said.
Beach to be ‘accessible 95 per cent of the year’
And while the plans are still unfolding, Cr Ibrahim claims that ‘Our expert engineering advice is that techniques [such as engineered protection works, groynes and sand nourishment systems] in combination will provide an accessible beach for 95 per cent of the year.’
In reply to whether the rock wall will result in beach erosion, he said, ‘This could not reasonably be said to be a “loss” of the beach.’
As for who pays, he says, ‘The Coastal Protection Act 1979 requires that any approval for permanent protection works must include a credible plan for maintenance and repair by private property owners as a condition of consent.’
Meanwhile, Council’s director of sustainable environment and economy, Shannon Burt, says the coastal zone management plan (CZMP), which outlines coastline management, is unlikely to meet the June 30, 2015 deadline.
She told The Echo it was owing to, ‘belated intervention by the OEH in relation to the draft cost benefit analysis prepared by Council’s consultants.’
The rock wall project, entitled Coastal Hazard Management Study Byron Bay Embayment, was also a ‘key part of the CZMP’.
‘The OEH have recently advised that they are completing their own independent cost benefit analysis of the management study. As a result, Council’s consultants will also need to review the alternative cost models. This task comes at additional cost and time.’
A spokesperson from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage explained that funding for the ‘interim protection works at Belongil Beach was subject to the submission of a draft design that satisfied the NSW Coastal Panel and relevant state agencies, including OEH, and grant requirements’.
They told The Echo that OEH had, ‘concerns with the proposed design related to the scale of works, impacts to public safety, beach access and amenity.
‘Funding has not been withdrawn and is still available dependent upon submission of a satisfactory design,’ they said. ‘OEH has recommended Byron Shire Council complete its CZMP as a matter of priority.’
Rocks bias: mayor
Council’s rejected offer of scientific advice from the OEH has angered mayor Simon Richardson, who told The Echo that ‘integrity and scientific rigour have been jettisoned.’
‘Cr Ibrahim and his supporters don’t want the eyes of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) over it. I do,’ he said.
‘And they should too.’
‘OEH have rightfully been appalled with the interim wall fiasco and are concerned about our economic modelling, which was clearly biased towards a rock wall “solution”.
‘When the OEH chief economist steps in with serious concerns about the cost benefit analysis modelling considering all the possible options; tells us his team will redo one at their expense and they wish to create a high level expert Council and OEH steering committee to make sure the process is robust and thorough, why wouldn’t we support that?’
He queried what expertise Crs Ibrahim, Wanchap, Cubis, Woods and Hunter had in the field.
‘I share the need to get this management plan completed as quickly as possible, but not at the expense of the opportunity for staff and OEH to work together to achieve a better, more transparent and more considered outcome.’
And dumping large rocks on beaches has also attracted criticism from another expert in the field; retired coastal engineer and long-time resident Andrew Winton-Brown addressed council on Thursday and asked them to explain the secrecy and cost benefit analysis.
He said, ‘Estimated to cost up to $3m to build and $800,000 per year to run, has this plan been factored into any of the analyses of the options particularly the environmental, social and tourist impacts of building such a system at a popular surfing beach and within a national park? Have National Parks and the Arakwal people been consulted as stakeholders?
‘What are the risks associated with this plan?’
‘Once the CZMP legitimises the rock walls, they still have to be built,’ Cr Duncan Dey told The Echo. ‘None of the current structures are up to the standard that will be required.
‘Funding of the re-construction is therefore their next hurdle. Their desire is to have the state – ie the public – fund as much as possible. Not only are the capital costs critical, but the ongoing maintenance is a huge long-term issue.
‘I think the residents are ready with the capital to build new correctly designed walls but what they don’t want is twofold: to foot the bill for sand nourishment and to carry the responsibility for rebuilds after storm damage. Our science is clear: (1) there will be no sand in front of the walls after a decade or two unless it is imported; and (2) with sea level rise (and no beach), damage to the walls will become more frequent.
The nation is watching
‘This is government in secret,’ he said. ‘The rest of the councillors are cut out of all of these plans, and it’s because our vote doesn’t matter.
‘This motion was thrown at us on the day and it took up more space than the overhead screen allowed.’ And despite being locked-out in decision -making, Cr Dey says ‘the nation is watching: our outcome will set a tone for many parts of NSW and Australia.’
But Cr Ibrahim agreed for community input in the process. A community advisory/reference panel will be established; however, its terms of reference and influence are yet to announced.
According to Cr Ibrahim, ‘There have been several meetings already which included concerned members of the public. They were provided with expert presentations, and participated in robust debate.’
Cr Ibrahim also defended the secrecy as ‘lawful process’ and told The Echo that, ‘the staff report explains that it is because of certain actions of the OEH that our draft is not ready for public exhibition.’
‘The recent attempt by OEH to take control of the process would further delay the process, well beyond the minister’s deadline of June 30.’