This week’s announcement by the state government to provide $300,000 for a rock wall at Belongil Beach has left residents dumbfounded, Byron Shire Council in the dark, and the state Greens fuming that the coalition has ‘burnt’ the money on behalf of a handful of rich landowners.
The interim protection measure against erosion is seen as a failed coastal management technique which critics say will permanently damage Byron Bay’s popular beaches and further erode the foreshore.
The Greens are scathing of the funding, saying proper process has not been followed in the surprise decision by minister for the north coast Don Page and environment minister Robyn Parker during a visit to Byron Bay at the weekend.
Greens MP Cate Faehrmann says the decision not just overturns the 30-year policy of planned retreat which has survived numerous court challenges, but raises questions about the general issue of political donations by property developers and business people.
And Byron Council’s general manager Ken Gainger says council doesn’t know how the remaining cost of the protection works will be funded, nor a total cost, and the works will also need an environmental review under state policy before they even start.
In the announcement, Mr Page said Belongil Beach was a coastal erosion ‘hotspot with 21 houses currently at risk from coastal erosion during severe storms’.
He said the funding would ‘enable the use of rocks as an alternative to the existing geobags’ for the protection of the Manfred Street public access area on Belongil Spit.
The geobags, currently in place at the three Belongil public beach accesses, were installed by council at the end of 2001 and repaired after wild storms in 2009.
But Ms Faehrmann said the rock walls ‘promise to deplete the sand on Byron’s beautiful beaches just to benefit a small number of property owners’.
She says the decision ‘also raises questions about where the funds were sourced given the government’s constant calls for cuts across the board.
‘The government is burning cash on a failed coastal management technique that could cause permanent damage to Byron’s beaches for the sake of a small number of waterfront properties that probably shouldn’t have been built in the first place.
‘For over 30 years the policy of planned retreat has survived numerous court challenges and has been supported by engineers and scientists.
‘Specifically, proposals to build a sea wall along the eroded areas of Belongil Beach have previously been rejected.
‘That the government has committed $300,000 to build rock walls without adequate consideration of the environmental impacts shows a lack of proper process.
‘The area is adjacent to the Cape Byron Marine Park and habitat for endangered migratory birds subject to international protection treaties.
‘The construction of a rock wall will inevitably result in the loss of the beach as the ongoing sea level rise and the impact of coastal storms and surges take away sand and ultimately the beach will be lost.
‘The decision of the NSW government to overturn 30 years of consistent policy on the issue of hard engineering measures at Belongil requires publication of the decision-making process as well as a clear explanation of how the adverse impacts of rock wall construction on the surrounding coastline will be managed and paid for.
‘Given significant donations to the Liberal party from property developers, the community is going to want to know why it was made and see all the evidence,’ Ms Faehrmann said.
Echonetdaily yesterday sought comment from Mr Page but at the time of going to press, none was available.
In a press release yesterday, Byron Shire Council said it had ‘yet to receive details’ on the funding announcement for the works at Manfred Street.
GM Mr Gainger said council applied for the funding in April this year ‘in order to provide resilient interim protection from coastal erosion at the site, along with safe public access’.
He said the grant application included around 110 linear metres of rock/hard interim protection works, dune revegetation and beach access at Manfred Street and that a preliminary design options report was being prepared and expected for council deliberation later this month.
‘Until a preferred design option is chosen, council does not have a total cost for the works or any information on how the remaining cost of the works will be funded,’ Mr Gainer said.
He said the ‘unknown element’ at this stage was the conditions applying for the funding, and when that was known, a work plan would be finalised and submitted to the Office of Environment and Heritage for approval.
‘Council is aiming to have the design and approvals process completed by the end of August 2013, but this is dependent on factors such as funding arrangements and obtaining feedback from agencies and stakeholders,’ he said.
‘The works will also require a Review of Environmental Factors (REF) once the final designs are completed.
‘Council proposes to undertake the interim rock/hard works under the State Environmental Planning Policy (Infrastructure) 2007 and seek advice from the NSW Coastal Panel.
Mr Gainger said the rock protection works were ‘an interim measure’ until a long-term coastal zone management plan was adopted.
Council had also decided to use interim rock protection works at Don and Border Streets in Belongil.
Mr Gainger pointed out that unstable ocean-viewing platforms at South Golden Beach in the north of the shire had been removed as a safety precaution and would be reinstated when the dunes stabilised.
He said state funding had also been sought for additional beach scraping at the depleted New Brighton beach, which was estimated to cost around $110,000.
Ms Faehrmann said the planned retreat policy accommodated natural coastal processes and avoids large-scale and ongoing spending of public money trying to implement and maintain hard engineering solutions to erosion.
She said the $300,000 funding for the wall construction did not address the ongoing need for sand nourishment to avoid the ocean lapping against the rock wall as the ongoing sea level rise and the impact of coastal storms and surges take away sand.
‘In 2006 a Byron Shire Council study identified that the initial cost of sand nourishment was over $50 million,’ she said.
‘All landowners have been aware of the policy of planned retreat since 1988. However some owners of Belongil beachfront properties have continued to agitate against the council’s policy.
‘In 2007 top law firm Mallesons Stephen Jaques fired off threats to the council on their behalf.’
She also pointed out that landowners in the area are large political donors to the Coalition.
Local resident Jan Hackett told Echonetdaily that rocks as a defensive structure on the beach was not a temporary option.
‘Once on the beach they are there forever. And they will be undermined just as the current rocks are being undermined, and eventually break-up the sand spit that separates the creek from the ocean. Like Noosa, it will sink and open up and flood. Not a pretty outcome,’ Ms Hackett said.
‘There are so many defensive structures that can benefit both residential development and the maintenance of the beach. But rocks are not one of them.
‘Storms have come and gone for eons and recent swells are not the greatest we have ever experienced in the Bay. But with the roll out of rocks on the beach at Main and Belongil, human intervention has steadily, over the last decade, irrevocably eroded our foreshores and primary playground.
‘Sand bags have worked reasonably well as a temporary defence in the past, but with people slicing them apart and dumping rocks creating deep water trenches, the beach has absolutely no chance to revive and survive.
‘Effectively, human mismanagement has worked hand in glove with the caprice of the ocean to diminish and damage our beaches.
At next Thursday’s council meeting, Cr Dianne Woods is set to move for council to speed up the process for installing the rocks at Belongil to replace the geobags.
The conservative councillor claims recent king tides and storm activity had disintegrated the geobags and made them ‘totally ineffective’.