Belongil residents will ‘get their rocks on’ after Byron Shire Council on Thursday voted to go ahead with plans for an ‘interim’ rock wall on their beach against the advice of the Office of Environment and Heritage.
Thursday’s decision follows the rejection of a motion by Greens Cr Duncan Dey to put the project on hold until the council completes a long-awaited Coastal Zone Management Plan (CZMP), now due in June next year.
But if councillors expected to receive any thanks from the affected landowners they had to think again.
The plan’s greatest advocate, Belongil resident John Vaughan, spent much of his allocated public access time railing against a legal agreement council had asked landowners to sign, describing it as a ‘40-page tome’ and comparing it to the ‘one-page document’ he had been provided in 2001, when a previous council was considering the issue.
Echonetdaily understands Mr Vaughan is the only affected landholder still to sign the document, and ironically now the only impediment to the rock wall going ahead.
Also speaking on the subject at public access was Karl Goodsell from Positive Change for Marine Life, who said there were ‘literally hundreds of examples from around Australia of dire consequences’ that had resulted from the building of sea walls.
‘A UNSW thesis written specifically on [Belongil] said that intervention can “interfere with and interrupt the natural processes”,’ he said.
‘If this [sea wall] goes ahead I predict there will be similar fight from residents further north within a decade,’ he added.
Mr Goodsell’s speech received a round of applause and accolades from the gallery but did not sway a majority of the councillors.
OEH withdraws funds
The move to hold off construction followed a series of letters from the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) this month, which spelt out to council staff that the the rock wall in its current design would not attract some $300,000 funding that it had previously promised.
But OEH said that funding could still be available if council instead chose to first complete the CZMP and reconsider the design in that context.
The carrot of state funds did not tempt conservative councillors, however, who defeated the motion with the aid of Greens defector Cr Rose Wanchap (Crs Dey, Richardson, Spooner and Cameron for).
Cr Wanchap spoke against the motion, using a slide-show of the ageing geotech bags, which she said were ‘there one day and gone the next’ to bolster her argument.
‘There’s a very small distance between the beach and the estuary. If we have a breakthrough in the middle of a storm, the rest of the people on that spit will be in danger,’ she said.
Source of funds
Cr Cameron raised the issue of alternative funding and said ‘we should give the community the opportunity to decide on whether to pay a million dollars for maybe six months’.
He was also critical of the options for funding the wall provided by council staff.
‘There’s $398,000 to come from the infrastructure renewal fund, which is meant for potholes and parks,’ he said.
‘I see the employee leave entitlements reserve is also to be raided.
‘Pictures of geobags moving, shows they’re working. The bite is caused by the rocks. Where is it going to cut in? At the most sensitive area, further north, where the endangered shorebirds are nesting,’ Cr Cameron said.
Rocks vs geobags
Under questioning from the mayor, infrastructure services director Phil Holloway said council had spent in excess of $2 million over 10 years on the existing geobag structure, ‘including repair and replacement’.
He also admitted some batches of the bags used were considered to be too small for the job, which had exacerbated the problem.
He added that new, larger sizes were now available but that geobags overall were ‘designed for small storms and small tides’.
Mr Holloway said a new wall constructed of geobags instead of rocks ‘would cost around $600,000’.
He was asked by Cr Dey how the sandbags would be removed to make way for the rocks.
‘I’m imagining I would just go down there with a Stanley knife,’ Cr Dey quipped, to which Mr Holloway replied it would be no easy task.
‘Some bags have compacted sand in them, which is not a simple matter to remove. The bags are designed so as not to be easy to cut. So it’s not just a case of cutting them and tipping out the sand,’ he said.
Mayor Simon Richardson gave perhaps the most impassioned speech of his career in a last-ditch attempt to get the motion up.
‘This is a simple notice of motion to give credence to some sense of process and science,’ he said.
‘What’s changed now is OEH won’t fund it because the wall is way too big, unnecessary and will undermine the CZMP.
‘The state’s pre-eminent coastal scientists [the NSW Coastal Panel] have said the same thing. Do we spend [a large amount of money] for 100 metres now, when if the CZMP says we shouldn’t have sea walls we then have to pay to remove it?’
He added staff had to use a loophole to get the proposal up at all.
‘This had to go through an infrastructure SEPP because rocks are not considered to be temporary. There’s not one case in Australia’s history where rocks were put on the beach and then removed.
‘We should acknowledge the OEH – that green extremist group – has withdrawn funding and said we should have a CZMP, and we should suspend it until we have a proper plan.
‘We should put process ahead of individual landowners and put science before spin,’ Cr Richardson said.
But his pleas failed to win over the conservatives and the decider, disaffected former Greens Cr Wanchap. The motion was lost by one vote.