Something very odd happened in the Byron Shire Council Chambers last Thursday – the lefty socialist councillors held the balance of power!
Key votes were missing from the absent Cr Rose Wanchap and Chris Cubis, which meant the hard right wing develop-anything faction didn’t have their usual numbers.
In a parallel universe, the chamber’s dynamic would be this way – the soft fuzzy lefties won a slim majority at the last election; however, they were robbed of ruling after Cr Rose Wanchap quit the Greens and aligned herself with an entirely opposite ideology.
And ever since, a five- councillor majority have presided happily over our future.
This includes largely reactive and ill-informed responses to major planning decisions which lack staff and expert support.
Known as the Belongil Five, they are councillors Sol Ibrahim, Di Woods, Chris Cubis, Alan Hunter and Rose Wanchap.
As Cr Duncan Dey (Greens) explained to The Echo later, any decisions made last week that the Belongil Five don’t like will be probably reversed in the next meeting.
And thus, the batshit crazy ideas will stumble onwards with no clear outcome other than erratic ill-defined over-development.
But let’s drink this moment in, even if it was just fleeting. This appeared to be the closest we have recently had to sanity in that room.
There were no awkward overhead projections or pleas from Cr Wanchap to adopt another of her thought-bubble traffic suggestions.
There were no complaints from Cr Cubis that there are too many policies.
Mullum tree saved
Anyway, on with the show, and there’s great news for tree huggers and supporters of community housing, even if it has a whiff of ‘deals behind closed doors.’
An almost unanimous vote (Cr Woods against) has reversed the decision to axe an old tree on Station Street in Mullum and direct the land it sits on towards community housing.
Saving the majestic fig was the subject of a petition of over 1,600 signatures, and it sits just metres away from Council HQ on land slated for sale.
The mayoral minute attempts to save the tree and also delegates authority to general manager Ken Gainger to discuss ‘with the North Coast Community Housing Company regarding the potential development of a range of affordable housing (80 per cent of market rental) and community housing (including aged, disability, and low income).’
During debate, it was made clear that negotiations had already begun between Mayor Richardson, deputy mayor Paul Spooner and North Coast Community Housing. The general manager was present at the meeting, the chamber was reassured.
Regardless, Cr Ibrahim and Cr Woods didn’t appear all that reassured, and were well, a little put out.
Cr Woods told the chamber she was uncomfortable that there was no tender or expressions of interest (EOI) with the process.
‘I’m not sure we should delegate [to the GM] given what happened with the [Ocean Shores] Roundhouse,’ she said. ‘I understand one person bought two blocks and now they are back on the market with an increase in price of $200,000. It’s almost corrupt to do this [project].
‘Why haven’t you discussed this with others to get a better outcome? I want to see it happen with due process.’
As those words were spoken, you could almost hear the room brace itself as a metaphorical grenade was lobbed wildly into the air.
Due process. In a perfect world, senior staff or the general manager should always be present when councillors meet with developers.
It helps to avoid accusations of corruption and maintains the illusion of trust.
But this is an imperfect world, and even the Greens mayor Simon Richardson was recently accused of a conflict of interest by residents who will be potentially affected by the Belongil train proposal.
A number of residents claimed he met the proponent in a public place without a Council staffer in sight.
And who is the proponent?
The $100 million dollar Elements of Byron resort.
And then there was the time when Cr Ibrahim was asked in the chamber why he called a potential tender specialising in building rock walls on the Gold Coast. He replied that he didn’t know and was after technical advice. Regardless, normal procedure is to ask staff to deal with such matters.
So, The Echo asked Cr Woods to confirm that – at all times when she meets developers – that a staff member is always present.
She replied, ‘I have done this for 12 years and I have never been a party to deals behind closed doors.’
However Cr Dey (Greens) pointed out that Cr Woods pushed a successful motion for a specific consultant to look over the recently tabled koala plan of management (KPoM). It was a move that appeared highly politicised.
She told The Echo that she was concerned about the KPoM’s legal implications.
‘…the proposed KPoM may have led us into years of lengthy and expensive court battles,’ she said. Yet this remark comes without public information being available that supports the lack of legal clarity surrounding the KPoM.
Additionally, Cr Woods appeared happy to support staff advice for a specific contractor to build her Belongil rock wall.
‘OEH also say that planned retreat, not rock structures, would be the best outcome given a revised cost benefit analysis’
Coastal high jinks
And that leads now to perhaps the most significant issue that has faced this current council: its approach to coastal planning.
The Belongil rock wall is close to completion; it’s a new stretch of 100-odd metres of rock to complement other structures that are of inferior engineering standards along a world-renowned beach.
This new wall has cost ratepayers nearly $1 million, and aims to protect one piece of Council-owned land.
Beside that land, it directly benefits neighbouring properties. Anyway the project has been long, expensive, painful and arduous, with coastal experts unhappy about potential public amenity loss.
Placing rocks there will mean the beach will eventually erode, we are told.
There are many legal uncertainties, but what we do know is that this is setting a precedent.
This project was pushed through in a hurry by the Belongil Five before any overarching strategic planning document was formulated.
Enter the Coastal Hazard Management Study Byron Bay Embayment. If your eyes haven’t glazed over, well done. Because here, dear reader, we have entered a new stage.
This Coastal Hazard Study thingy is needed to guide future planning of beaches around Byron Bay.
What was tabled Thursday was a report on this by consultants Water Research Laboratory (WRL) that included NSW government department letters to staff which point to a number of ‘issues and errors’ within that report.
That inlcudes WRL’s cost benefit analysis (CBA) and a lack of plans to replenish the expected loss of sand.
The Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) also says that planned retreat, not rock structures, would be the best outcome given a revised cost benefit analysis.
Council passed a motion – which will be likley rescinded later – to seek an ‘independent report from a qualified practitioner with experience in coastal morphology.’
It would explore sand transfer/nourishment methodology and planned retreat options, as per government advice.
Given what’s at stake, that would seem reasonable.
The Echo asked Cr Woods why she continues to vote against clear advice from the state government, specifically the sand nourishment request and cost benefit analysis (CBA) aspects.
The Echo understands that the OEH have offered to do the CBA free of charge, yet the Belongil Five insist on using ratepayer money to fund it.
Cr Woods said, ‘I am very much in favour of protecting the Belongil Spit simply because of the massive costs that Council would incur if we didn’t. I am against any further development on the immediate coastline, but am very happy to support protecting what we currently have.’
She said, ‘OEH have been obstructionist in their handling of the whole process and every time we are close to a decision, they come up at the 11th hour with another excuse why we cannot move forward.’
‘At the end of the day, it will be the minister who will decide.’