The planned new suburb of West Byron is not needed to ensure the Byron Shire meets its state housing growth targets, ecologist Dailan Pugh told last night’s meeting of more than 100 concerned residents at the Byron Sports and Cultural Complex.
Mr Pugh put the blame for the development squarely on the shoulders of Byron Shire Council, saying it had abrogated its responsibility for drawing up a regional development strategy for years.
‘Seven years after it was first promised by council there is still no strategy,’ Mr Pugh said.
A NSW government plan had identified the need for 2,600 new houses in Byron Shire by 2031 to meet its growth targets, he told the meeting.
‘The onus is on the community to provide 104 new dwellings a year for 25 years.
‘So far we’ve delivered an average of 190 a year, or a total 1523 new dwellings in eight years, which is 14.3 years’ worth of new growth,’ Mr Pugh said.
‘Ewingsdale Road and Jonson Street roundabout are already beyond capacity. Why would any community in its right mind pick the most congested road in the shire to put in a new development?’, he asked.
Mr Pugh said there were sufficient vacant blocks and potential dual occupancy sites in Byron Bay and Suffolk Park to meet the targets for the foreseeable future and that these were more likely to offer ‘affordable’ housing, such as granny flats, than a greenfield site like West Byron.
He added that new developments in Bangalow and Mullumbimby meant the shire would likely continue to exceed its targets into the future, even without West Byron coming online.
‘There is also a proposal for 170 houses, a retirement village and a shopping mall around the new hospital but this has also been passed to the planning minister for a decision.’
Mr Pugh concluded, ‘Residents of Byron Shire have been denied their rights for long enough. It’s about time this anti-democratic council gave them back,’ to a round of applause.
Wanchap walks out
Following Mr Pugh’s speech, Byron Shire mayor Simon Richardson was introduced but before he could begin to speak his former Greens ally, now independent councillor, Rose Wanchap began shouting from the back of the room.
Ms Wanchap quit the party after Echonetdaily reported that she had crossed the floor to vote with pro-development councillors against the mayor’s urgency motion on the issue of West Byron at last month’s council meeting.
Cr Wanchap announced she had to leave the meeting but was happy to take questions from the floor, whereupon the MC repeated his earlier announcement that questions would be reserved for the end of the meeting.
A member of the audience shouted out ‘conflict of interest’, referring to her job as a real estate agent.
Cr Wanchap said she was happy to speak to the issue but the MC reasserted his authority and reiterated there would be no questions until the end, adding ‘we are here to talk about the development’.
Cr Wanchap then left the meeting together with Cr Sol Ibrahim.
When he did get to speak, Cr Richardson said that while council would like its planning powers handed back, it was imperative that due process was seen to be followed by the state government.
This could not happen, he said, while the quality of the three main studies relating to the proposed development were in dispute.
‘The motion is not about affordable housing – it’s not about world’s best practice when we build great buildings. It’s a furphy that these things need to be looked at at a DA level,’ he said, in response to issues previously raised by Cr Wanchap and others.
Rather, he said, the community needed the government ‘to give us the surety that what you are doing is fair’.
‘If the state government wants the respect of the community, it needs to respond to the two sets of [conflicting] data about acid sulphate soils, two reports on koalas and differing traffic reports,’ he said.
‘Let’s defer it, get an independent report and get a set of data we can agree on. At least then we can live with whatever poison chalice the government gives us and asks us to drink from.
Mayor Richardson urged the group to ‘drink from the fountain of democracy and email other councillors and ask them to vote in support of [today’s] motion’.
Earlier in the meeting, koala expert Stephen Phillips, author of the original koala study for the site, said attempts elsewhere in the media to discredit the study were wrong.
He said the methodology used for his study was ‘best practice’ and a ‘leading standard’.
Mr Phillips said there were four important koala cells along the Byron coast (east of the Pacific Highway) with a total estimated population of just 240.
He said the proposed West Byron development was in the middle of one of the cells that had a ‘long history of occupancy’.
‘The habitat is linear and restricted but very high quality,’ he told the meting.
Mr Phillips used the Chinese term ‘ling chi’, meaning death of 1000 cuts, to describe the progressive impact of the proposed development on the site’s remaining population.
‘This is a term those of us who study koalas are all too familiar with,’ he told the meeting.
Natural scientist and Echonetdaily contributor Mary Gardner spoke about the acid sulphate soils on the site, how they came into being and the potential for them to poison the Belongil estuary if earthworks for the development disturb the soils.
‘When this [former swamp] soil is dried and turned over it creates sulphuric acid which seeps through soil and binds with heavy metals, killing plants,’ she said.
‘It also gets into the estuary and kils fish.
‘In 1988 when Byron Council first announced the site was “under investigation” Belongil was declared the most polluted estuary in the state.
‘It still has very high levels of lead and petrochemical pollution.’
Ms Gardner also reminded the audience of a 2002 ‘Belongil Think Tank’, which had examined ways to deal with the issues, including putting in flood and stormwater controls and returning some or all of the site back into wetlands.
‘I’ll leave it to others to explain how the lowest-lying, most degraded land in Byron suddenly became the most expensive,’ she said.
‘Now the challenge is to pick up the pieces, look at it again and learn from history.’
Cr Richardson’s motion will be voted on in Byron Shire Council today.
The group is urging as many people as possible to attend today’s Byron Shire Council Meeting from 9am to support the vote.