Major developments proposed for the Belongil and West Byron areas, including a festival site, beachside resort with 160 cabins, and a giant suburb for up to 2,000 homes, face a major hurdle in the protection of Byron Shire’s coastal koalas.
And residents of Sunrise Beach at Belongil, backed by environmentalists, fear the cumulative environmental and social impact of these controversial developments, as well as a pub and drive-through bottle shop approved last year, will radically change their neighbourhood.
The enhanced protected status of the koala and an expert’s call for the urgent need to create linkages for the marsupials’ movement around Byron Shire has lifted the importance of planning to protect the iconic animal.
Byron Shire Council is currently working on a koala plan of management, set to be adopted early next year, based on a habitat study conducted this year by eminent koala ecologist Dr Stephen Phillips.
In his study, Dr Phillips recommends an urgent need for identifying and establishing linkage areas that facilitate the movement of koalas between currently isolated population cells to be ‘afforded an accordingly high level of importance and protection’.
While not in an identified koala habitat area, the controversial developments proposed for the 88-hectare old Club Med/Becton site at Belongil (currently used by the Writers’ Festival) lie between known koala populations at Tyagarah to the north and at West Byron, and therefore a potential linkage or corridor.
Byron Council is currently assessing a development application by the developers of the North Byron Beach Resort to amend a 25-year-old approval for 161 two- and three-bedroom cabins at the site. That plan is on exhibition till October 29.
It is also assessing a plan by the same development company, owned by Queensland coal-mining magnate Brian Flannery, to run eight festivals a year there.
And the state government’s Planning Assessment Commission is assessing the major West Byron subdivision proposal.
The Byron koala habitat study also recommends designating a koala management area (KMA) for the coastal area between Brunswick Heads and West Byron, which would include the North Byron resort site.
The study says there are two major koala population centres at Myocum-Tyagarah and West Byron with a total of around 240 koalas.
Dr Phillips also says that effective protection measures should be put in place to address any further potential fragmentation of koala habitat in Byron shire.
Meanwhile, residents have formed a Save our Sunrise (SOS) committee and recently met with council to try to ensure both their amenity and local koala protection are not impacted on by the developments.
SOS spokesperson Christine Wilmott said locals had concerns about the potential serious impacts of the festival plan on their suburb and adjacent estuary containing threatened birds.
Ms Wilmott said the site was a wildlife corridor or key linkage area for koalas between Tyagarah and West Byron and the plan to run eight festivals a year with up to 3,000 participants and 1,500 campers would have a big impact.
‘With the proposal for multiple festivals, the possibility of 160 new cabins, and approval for a new pub and drive-through bottle shop, local residents involved with Save Our Sunrise are concerned about possible overdevelopment,’ she said.
After the meeting with SOS, acting general manager Ray Darney said koala habitat would be considered as part of the assessment report for the festival site.
‘We know that koala habitat is under threat in Byron Shire and the population is being challenged by new developments,’ Mr Darney said.
‘Until a full ecological assessment on the site is completed it is too early to tell what impacts, if any, the development will have on the koalas in that region.’
Mr Darney said he also had concerns about impacts on koalas from the proposed West Byron development.
‘Wildlife corridors are integral to protecting and enhancing biodiversity and habitats,’ he said.
‘Koala habitats need to have connectivity to ensure their population is sustained from Broken Head to Tyagarah and on to the Tweed.
‘This connectivity is one of the key aims of the draft LEP 2012 currently on public exhibition,’ Mr Darney said.
Project manager for North Byron Cultural Events, Jeremy Holmes, said the resort/festival site contained neither potential koala habitat nor ‘recognised koala food trees’, but koalas had been observed in the protected littoral rainforest adjoining Belongil Creek.
‘Our small-scale events DA does not trigger the need for a koala plan of management under the koala SEPP (state environment planning policy),’ he said.
Mr Holmes said architects and environmental consultants would soon be commissioned to design the company’s proposed beach resort.
He said the company was applying to ‘recycle and relocate’ the existing restaurant building at the site for its new approved tavern nearby.
(To see where wildlife and koala corridors are located in Byron Shire, visit Council’s interactive map at www.byron.nsw.gov.au/byron-shire-environmental-mapping.)