Twenty-five years ago the Byron Shire Council was at its worst, approving developments without environmental concern and with an enthusiasm for changing the scale and character of the area.
The council’s approval of Club Med was not the only major decision challenged by the community in the courts; there was also the Batsons Sand and Gravel Quarry at Broken Head. It became a period of high community engagement with activism an essential element of being an empowered Byron Shire resident.
As a community we had ideas for a sustainable future, we had embraced the Rio Earth Summit and the call for action. There are fond recollections for many of how it felt to be part of a connected community with a goal of stewardship, to care for and protect our precious place. As a community we were the superhero, not individually but collectively being a voice against the degradation of our home. It’s time again for community action.
With Broken Head a recognised biodiversity hotspot it was alarming that this area, previously recommended for protection, was being proposed for ongoing sand, gravel and pebble extraction in the coastal zone.
The 64ha site was known to contain up to 29 threatened plant and animal species and sits above a significant Aboriginal site that is affected by pollution from the quarry operation. As the Shire’s southern wildlife corridor, Broken Head plays a crucial role in species survival.
Values aren’t owned, they are shared. Property boundaries don’t contain the impacts on the ecological and cultural values of the wider geographic area. For more than 40 years the site at Broken Head has been ravaged by commercial and government priorities.
Despite a poor quality application, the council in 1993 approved the proposal for 36 years of expanded quarry operations. There had been more than a decade of complaints about the destructive operations by BEACON, Byron Environment Centre, Suffolk Park Protection Association and Broken Head Protection Committee and concerns raised by Arakwal elders.
The Broken Head Protection Committee and Peter Helman mounted a legal challenge against the approval and, after hearings in the Land and Environment Court and the Court of Appeal, it was a win for the environment.
This was not the only big win; Club Med similarly was denied approval by the courts on the basis of poor environmental consideration.
We live in an area that is also home to some of the country’s best ecologists who deliver the scientific evidence. The proposal was clearly inadequate with a lack of focus on the protection of this unique area.
The applicants went back to the drawing board with clear guidance regarding the failings of the previous application and aware that attention to the ecological values of the site was required.
In 1997 a new application for 27 years of extraction was lodged and attracted a record number of submissions. Council received 2,148 submissions, which was more than the Club Med proposal and the majority, (more than 95%) opposed. The application had failed the community test for ecological and cultural protection. The community position was for the site, particularly the eastern portion, to be protected.
Commission of Inquiry in 1998
The issue was raised in parliament by Ian Cohen MLC (a founding member of the Broken Head Protection Committee), with a call for an independent inquiry.
The minister for planning instigated a Commission of Inquiry that commenced in June 1998. The inquiry took submissions and heard not only of the ecological values of the site but also the Aboriginal cultural significance of the downstream affected Ti Tree Lake and its degradation owing to the runoff from the quarry operations.
Commissioner Mark Carleton released his report in October 1998 and then in May 1999 the new minister for planning Andrew Refshauge granted a 22-year approval. The consent defined strict conditions for the management of the site including ongoing rehabilitation of areas that were being denuded by the quarrying and water management that was crucial for the protection of the waters of the sacred Aboriginal women’s lake.
The report also stated that the applicant’s objective for the long term is to ‘leave all land which has been disturbed by quarrying and related activities as a safe, stable, vegetated and well drained landform.’
Not long after the approval was issued, the site was sold and the new operators were required to report to a community-based consultative committee hosted by Council that was to oversee the implementation of the approval.
For more than a decade it was a difficult process of requiring the applicant to undertake and submit evidence of compliance with the consent conditions. In hindsight, it may have been useful to more vigorously seek the state government’s compliance of their approval.
In 2014, the landowners lodged an application for a 41-lot residential development. Byron Shire Council refused the application on strong grounds of zone inconsistency, impact on threatened species and an unacceptable and cumulative impact on the Aboriginal cultural significance of Ti Tree Lake. The site had not been rehabilitated as required by the consent. Rather, an application for a perpetual use of the site for housing (which would probably end up as luxury holiday let), instead of the long-awaited outcome of a regenerated and functioning protected area.
Byron deserves better!
The applicant appealed the decision, but the refusal was upheld by the Land and Environment Court.
In 2017 the NSW Department of Planning stepped in to review the compliance with the consent and approval issued by the minister. It’s no surprise to locals that there have been breaches of the approval; many complaints had been made during the operational life of the quarry.
What is required now is site rehabilitation as required by the approval and future protection.
Now is the time to fulfil the recommendation from the NPWS director who proposed to government in 1972 that much of the eastern side of the quarry be reserved for protection as an addition to Broken Head Nature Reserve, owing to its high scientific value in the coastal zone.
It’s time again for the community to call for the site to be protected. It was always the expectation that this unique ecological area would be rehabilitated.
Enough is enough for this significant and fragile area that has been ravaged by decades of extraction and disruption to the ecological framework of the site and the surrounding area, including the long-overdue recognition of the urgency to protect the Ti Tree Lake.
Governments’ role in taking responsibility for the approvals they issue and the long-lasting impacts for local communities must be tested. Residents are urged to make the request to the premier that this site is now protected.
Please write your letter and send to premier Gladys Berejiklian c/o Parliament House, Sydney 2000.
Hard-copy letters are best but if you must you can also send electronically to [email protected]
Jan Barham is a former state MLC, Byron Shire mayor and a member of the Broken Head Protection Committee from 1992.