In what could well be a landmark decision for holiday letting, Byron Shire resident Shai Major has been found guilty of development
without consent and ordered to pay up to $100,000 for renting his share-house to a group of schoolies for a week.
Major claimed that he organised schoolies accommodation via a schoolies website and with the money paid an overdue electricity bill.Council and police raided his former Jonson Street property on December 2 last year, and the court heard they found 18 people sleeping on the premises which posed health and safety issues.
Magistrate Michael Dakin handed down the decision in Byron Bay’scourthouse last Friday after a full day of cross-examination and evidence. Major was fined $75,000 and ordered to pay $22,000 in council legal fees.
A council spokesman said afterwards that Council was cracking down on unlawful and unsafe accommodation and the fine would send a message to people who wanted to run cheap and illegal accommodation, that council would ‘come after you’.
‘The last thing we want in Byron Shire is a Childer’s type backpacker fire, where we lose any number of people in the shire, that would be tragic’, the spokesman said.
Major was unrepresented, and with English being his second language, appeared to not understand some of the questions asked of him or some legal procedures. While the magistrate appeared to take the disadvantage into consideration, he did say to Mr Major, ‘I think you have a case to answer’.
Throughout the day, Major attempted to turn the proceedings into counter-accusations of Council’s poor management of the case and challenged the definition of holiday letting. He began with a list of around 200 properties in the Shire that he claimed were illegally operating as holiday lets, and inferred he was unfairly singled out.
Council’s media releases and subsequent Northern Star reporting was not only inaccurate, but racist, he told the court. He said his house was not a ‘slum’ and unhygienic but a ‘normal happy share-house’. ‘How does this relate to the case?’ was often repeated by the magistrate.
It was finally explained that whatever grievances Major had against Council and the media, those complaints needed to be taken up separately. ‘I haven’t read the newspaper articles and I don’t intend to,’ said Mr Dakin. ‘My role is to determine fact and apply law to that fact.’
Byron Shire compliance officer Andrew Hill was clearly exasperated as he was asked questions by Major for around an hour. When asked by Major why statements were taken of the schoolies and not of the sharehouse members, he said it took a long time to collect the statements from those ‘schoolies’ as it was.
Council’s consultant town planner, Patrick Dawson, provided a statement that he said relied somewhat on Mr Hill’s statement. He also clarified that under current Council policy for zonings, the term ‘holiday letting’ was not included. ‘There is no definition of holiday letting in the current Byron Local Environment Plan (LEP), however tourist facilities and hostels are defined.’
Council also tendered evidence of email exchanges between Major and the schoolies website operator, however when Major tried to supply his evidence of statements by former house-mates, both Council and the court refused as the court was not given the documents beforehand. Mr Dakin said Major had ‘manipulated’ the court through his attempts to argue he was unfairly targeted.
The fine handed down is almost the maximum amount a local magistrate can apply. Mr Dakin said fines of $1.1 million can apply in other courts,.
After the hearing, Major told Echonetdaily, ‘This fine for one week of holiday letting is ten times more than the $10,000 fine that the guy in the industrial estate recently got. ‘He had a real, ongoing backpackers/commercial letting business in his industrial units. What is the extra $90,000 all about? The fact that I dared to stand up to ask that my case be heard in court?’