By Mandy Nolan
Meet Dr Garry Egger. When his neighbours built a rock wall, his house fell into the sea.
Coincidentally Dr Egger was in town last week when Byron Shire Council voted in favour of constructing a controversial wall at Belongil beach.
Dr Egger’s case is often quoted regarding coastal management and is one of the first of its type – he took Gosford Shire Council to court after approval for nearby apartments and a sea wall caused the loss of his family home in Terrigal.
The case dragged on for nearly ten years, with ‘Egger v Gosford Shire Council’ concluding in 1987 with a surprising verdict.
‘The judge took a year to make his decision,’ says Dr Egger.
‘It was the first case of its kind in the country, and it was decided in the end that we won on the facts and lost on the law. The judge [ruled that] council may not have known that when they allowed this block of home units to be built beyond the sand dune, that we would lose our home.’
Dr Egger’s lawyer’s claimed that this was not the case as there had been numerous protests against the development.
‘Strangely all the documents relating to that protest went missing during the court case,’ says Dr Egger.
‘This was not a case that governments would like to have seen as successful, because it set a precedent for every coastal property around the country.
‘In the end, the fact we established what caused the erosion did set a precedent.’
He says the decision showed that ‘yes, the development had caused the erosion that led to the destruction of our property’, but council was not liable for its decision to approve the seawall because given the lack of knowledge about coastal erosion at that time, it may not have been aware of this as a potential outcome.
Dr Egger says his family home was built on the primary sand dune and had been there for 50 years.
‘It had never been troubled with coastal erosion,’ says Dr Egger, ‘We had been there 28 years. The block of home units that was constructed along from us was built out to the edge of the primary sand dune. In 1974, we had a freakish weather event and the erosion started from there.
‘If the units had been built back and they hadn’t put in the rock wall [to protect the apartments from further erosion] then nothing would have happened.
‘You could say we were the first victims of climate change in Australia; two cyclones that met off the coast, and that caused the initial erosion and then four years after that the continued erosion ate around the house.’
This was 1978. Dr Egger’s mother lived in the family home until its destruction.
‘It was picked up as international news at the time and ever since has been published in school textbooks as an example of coastal erosion.’
When their house fell into the sea, Dr Egger’s family lost everything.
‘We were insured but this was seen as an act of God.’
He says council took no responsibility and refused to help while the insurance company refused to pay.
‘If it had been a bushfire at least we would have had some sort of assistance.’
But it was Dr Egger’s aerial photos of the beach that helped establish that the apartments and sea wall had caused the destruction of their property.
According to Dr Egger, rock walls create what is known as a ‘rich man’s rip’.
‘It happens three or four houses down from the construction. The place next door is usually protected.’
In relation to potential erosion effects on neighbouring properties, Cr Duncan Dey asked council staff at last week’s extraordinary meeting, ‘How certain is council that this wall won’t create liabilities for the damage it will cause to neighbouring walls?’ Staff took the question on notice.