Byron Shire Council has announced the sale of the former Telstra site adjacent to Woolworths in Mullumbimby for $517,000, just $10,000 more than it was bought for in 2008, when it was promoted as a big win for the community.
The council announced the purchase with fanfare in a front page story in the Byron Shire Echo on February 26 that year, with then Byron GM Pamela Westing telling the paper, ‘I never thought I’d have so much fun at work!’
Then mayor Jan Barham was equally enthusiastic, telling the paper, ‘We considered an urgency motion at our meeting on February 14 and we acted. We didn’t want to think in future about an opportunity missed. We are thrilled we could secure an important community asset that has such great potential.
‘Lots of opportunity comes with this land purchase, it has a number of potential uses, she said.
‘Council is not a major landholder, so any acquisition of this kind will be put to good use.
‘There is a need for good land whether it is used for community infrastructure of some kind or affordable housing or whatever. It is a safe investment,’ then mayor Barham added.
But the community appetite for the property appeared to evaporate with the heady mood, and the discovery not long after purchase that the land would need expensive remediation works before any permanent building works or long-term occupation could take place.
Current Byron Shire mayor and fellow Greens councillor Simon Richardson said the council was ultimately relieved to have sold the property for a modest profit without having to fork out for expensive remediation.
‘When we bought it we found out there was serious contamination. So that straight away constrained what short-term things we could do,’ he told Echonetdaily yesterday.
‘Then we looked at what we could do short-term. We were offering leases at pretty low rent at what we could lease it for an the best offer we got was from an equipment hire place to use it for extra storage. It was still going to cost us a little bit just to mitigate,’ he added.
‘I put up different resolutions over the years looking for social service or community groups for a day drop-in centre and none of them were interested. The issues were the short-term nature of any tenancy and their capacity to provide a worthwhile service.
‘We couldn’t find an identifiable group who wanted to use it.’
Cr Richardson added that when council reluctantly decided to sell the property, they first looked for a buyer that would have a community use in mind.
‘I moved a few ‘creative Mullum’ proposals [supporting people] who wanted to value-add to make it a good community spot. There was a lot of talk of what we could do.
‘The last opportunity we had was to change the zoning to allow more uses to allow some of the more creative ideas that wouldn’t be permissible on the site [under the previous LEP].
‘We hoped that when someone took it over they could do more than just commercial. We then gave them notice to get back to us but we received nothing by August and the LEP was finalised – and they were the two triggers for the property to be sold,’ he said.
‘I even put a notice of motion to postpone the auction if anyone could present something. When I pushed that, all that really came back was “there a couple of people who were kind of interested”. So nothing had progressed in a year.’
Cr Richardson said he ‘tried to get a broader outcome’ but in the end the various proponents ‘had nothing to show’.
‘The developer isn’t associated with Woolies or anything like that but they are looking to onsell it but we will just have to wait and see as to what goes on at the site.
‘We thought we’d lose on it, given there was $100,000 needed to remediate the site. Most people would walk away and say we dodged a bullet.’
But former mayor and Greens MLC Jan Barham disagrees and believes the council could have borrowed money or obtained government grants to build affordable housing and community facilities on the site.
‘I’m just not sure about the principal of selling property for a financial “crisis” that really isn’t evident,’ she told Echonetdaily.
‘It’s one of the best bits of property in the shire, probably in terms of being able to do commercial and residential and have an ongoing income for council for half a million, which is a bit of a disappointment.
She said the move lacked foresight.
‘We’ve done an affordable housing strategy. We probably could’ve put six little one-bedroom flats on top of a community commercial building and we would’ve had ongoing income.
‘Ms Barham said she had been trying to locate where council had done a comparison of section 94 funds against infrastructure expenditure.
‘I’ve seen reports of underfunded infrastructure, so they should be spending money that they hold already for developments.
‘I’m not a strong believer in the deficit principle, I think holding onto property that provides social and community benefit is a better long-term investment,’ she added.