Sacrificing public beaches for private gain

A protest agains the proposed Belongil rock wall took place on Wednesday September 8. (picture:

A protest against the proposed Belongil rock wall in September last year. Photo Tao Jones

Dailan Pugh

With regards to the ongoing erosion of Byron Bay’s beaches, the key questions are: how much do you value your public beaches; are you willing to sacrifice Belongil beach to protect private properties; and how much are you prepared to pay to do so? You will need to consider these when responding to the soon to be released Coastal Zone Management Plan (CZMP) for Byron Bay’s beaches.

Not unsurprisingly, the latest 2014 survey shows that more than two-thirds of residents would rather have beaches than rock walls. Despite this Byron Council appears determined to sacrifice Belongil beach and use tens of millions of ratepayers dollars replacing it with rocks.

The latest estimates are that Byron Bay’s beaches generate a minimum of $115 million annually for Byron Bay due to beach related tourism expenditure. The value for residents is claimed to be $2 million per annum, which equates as $75 per Byron Shire resident. Based on usage, 28 per cent of this monetary value has been attributed to Belongil Beach.

I don’t know about you, but I think Byron Bay’s beaches are worth far more than $75 to me.

When the scale of the beach erosion problem was recognised back in the late 1970’s council ‘favoured’ groynes and rock walls, though they realised ‘because of the very large costs involved, council would be unable to implement that strategy or even to plan the funding of such a strategy’ (shire engineer’s Report of 26 March 1985). They also recognised that protecting Belongil would increase erosion of ‘north beach’ and leave council vulnerable to massive compensation claims.

With no viable alternative, in 1983 erosion zones were first incorporated into LEPs 4 and 5 for north beach. In 1986 council adopted and began to apply the principles of planned retreat, and they were formally incorporated into our LEP in 1988.

The nub of the problem is that even if we had the tens of millions required to build and maintain rock walls and groynes to protect private properties, we will lose the beaches in front of them and transfer the erosion that would have occurred to their updrift (west) end.

Attempts have been made for decades to identify sources for the millions of tonnes of sand we would need to suck up and move to Belongil to maintain an artificial beach in front of the walls.

Back in 2006 council abandoned the proposal to spend five months (day and night) dredging 2.8 million tonnes of sand from in front of the Cape Byron lighthouse to fill groynes at Belongil because the cost of over $50 million was considered too expensive.

Undaunted, this time council’s preferred option is spending over $51 million building walls and groynes at Belongil and filling them with sand. With another $650,000 pa for maintenance. Actual costs will undoubtedly be far higher.

They were proposing installing a huge pump at Cosy Corner to pump up to 80,000 cubic metres of sand per annum from Tallow Beach to Belongil until the community said ‘no way’. So now they have nowhere to get their sand.

They do have a bargain for us. They claim that for just $30 million and $260,000 pa we can get a new rock wall at Belongil, one extra-large groyne, and no sand. At least they are saying benefiting landowners should pay for half of this (but many landowners don’t agree). Though ratepayers will also be liable for millions in compensation for the increased erosion of north beach that will be caused.

So for a discount of $15 million of our rates and taxes upfront, within a decade or two we can expect to lose the beach in front of our new walls, erode the end of the Belongil spit, create a new creek mouth at the end of the walls, lose tens of millions in tourism revenue, and pay millions in compensation.

The current legal threats by Belongil landowners to drag Byron ratepayers through the courts if we refuse to abandon the policy of planned retreat in the CZMP, will be nothing compared to the legal challenges we can expect if we are stupid enough to abandon the three decades of legal indemnity that planned retreat has bought us.

The claim that the Jonson Street rock walls are the sole cause of Belongil’s erosion is plainly wrong. While they have contributed to the erosion, the 20cm rise in sea-levels over the past century and a net annual loss of sand from the bay are primarily responsible.

If we now abandon planned retreat and commit to constructing and maintaining rock walls at Belongil it will cost us a financial and environmental fortune, with maintenance and upgrade costs rapidly escalating as seas rise until, inevitably, the defences are overwhelmed by the rising seas. The trickle of litigation will turn into a torrent when council’s seawalls begin to collapse, though we may be bankrupt well before then.

Beware, the gang of five, led by Sol Ibrahim and Rose Wanchap, are determined to get rid of planned retreat and have their preferred option signed, sealed and delivered by the end of June.

Dailan Pugh is the Byron Residents’ Group and BEACON representative on the Byron Bay CZMP Project Reference Group.

One response to “Sacrificing public beaches for private gain”

  1. Len Heggarty says:

    To my way of thinking, and to every nation on the globe’s thinking, maybe you have left the words “Climate Change” out of your article.
    The world had a Climate Change meeting because Climate Change is real.
    “With regards to the ongoing Climate Change erosion of Byron Bay’s beaches, . . .”

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