Brunswick Heads residents at the barricades placed across what they believed was their public road shortly before they were removed in a protest action last year.
A north coast based MP has asked questions in parliament over the controversial charging of an organiser of a community protest group which removed barricades from a public road at Brunswick Heads last year.
The protest action was part of a campaign to stop what residents call a land grab by state caravan park managers.
Supporters of Foreshore Protection Group convener Michele Grant, who is defending a charge of disposing of stolen property, claim her prosecution is a classic SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) move aimed at silencing the outspoken critic.
The group has long fought against encroachment of public land by the state-owned North Coast Holiday Parks (NCHP), which runs three caravan parks on crown reserves in the village.
The hearing of the case against Ms Grant began before magistrate Michael Dakin in Mullumbimby Court on Friday when prosecution witnesses, including a senior Byron Shire Council officer, testified over the removal of the barricades around a year ago from Riverside Crescent in the Ferry Reserve caravan park.
The case was adjourned to Byron Local Court on 19 July.
Ms Grant was part of a group of more than a dozen Brunswick Heads residents who took part in the community protest action to remove the large barricades which they said illegally obstructed access to a public boat ramp.
The barricades were erected on the road a week before a new licence agreement for the park was adopted by Council, sparking local outrage. The protest aimed to highlight ongoing community support for retaining foreshore land for public use.
The barricades were later placed outside the main entrance to council’s offices in Mullumbimby but removed by council workers and reinstalled on the foreshore road.
The residents were angered at the blocking of the road by NCHP management, who they said breached council’s new licence agreement for the caravan park, which retained Riverside Crescent and the reserve foreshore for public use.
At the core of Ms Grant’s defence is her belief the barricades were owned by council and the protesters had therefore not stolen them but returned them to the local government body after the action.
A plea earlier this year for police to drop the charge, which came three months after the alleged offence, was rejected. Police had also questioned several other locals over the action.
In state parliament last week, MLC Jan Barham put almost 20 questions on notice to the ministers for environment and primary industries over the incident and management of the parks.
Ms Barham, a former Byron shire mayor, also asked questions about the relationship between the administrators of the parks, the North Coast Accommodation Trust (NCAT), and NCHP, including an inquiry on how much it spends for the benefit of the Brunswick Heads community.
She has previously asked the state government in parliament why the road was suddenly closed by park managers.
Last week she asked if the minister responsible for the parks, environment minister Robyn Parker, was ‘aware that the matter related to the removal of barricades that had been placed on a public road without the procedural public notification process?’
She also asked the extent of the costs of the case against Ms Grant and who would be paying for them.
One of the prosecution witnesses who was staying at the Ferry Reserve Caravan Park at the time of the barricade removal is believed to have been flown from Wollongong and accommodated locally to testify.
Others involved in giving evidence included NCAT administrator Jim Bolger, a NCHP manager and Council’s executive manager of community infrastructure, Phil Holloway.
The case did not get heard till late in the afternoon, and most witnesses had to wait around the court for the best part of the day.
Residents who supported the protest action attended the hearing in a show of solidarity with Ms Grant.
One told Echonetdaily outside the court that the charging of Ms Grant by authorities was aimed at trying to intimidate the vocal protest group by ‘chopping its head off’.
‘It’s a classic SLAPP move, one being used more and more by developers, corporations and governments in the US and Australia to silence those speaking out,’ the supporter said.
Another supporter said ‘It’s obvious someone is determined to stop any protests against the park managers, I mean who is actually stealing from whom? They’re stealing our public land’.