If any member of the Joint Regional Planning Panel (JRPP) was in doubt that Byron residents are in total opposition to the plans of two groups of developers to carve up the West Byron wetlands into 667 housing lots, they would have been thoroughly disabused after four hours of passionate and informed speeches by opponents at Mullumbimby Civic Hall on Tuesday evening (June 19).
Out of the 30-odd speakers there was not a single speech in favour of the proposal.
The meeting had been a long time in coming and was the first opportunity for residents to have their say in four years, following the much maligned 2014 community consultation that was described at the meeting as a ‘farce’.
The five-member panel that will ultimately decide the fate of the proposals consists of: chair Garry West, a former National Party government minister; former bureaucrats Stephen Gow and John Griffin; and neighbouring councillors Katie Milne (Tweed Greens mayor) and Vanessa Ekins (Lismore Greens councillor).
Cr Ekins sent her apologies but Mr West told Echonetdaily she would be provided with ‘the recordings of the sessions and all of our notes’.
Ecologist Dailan Pugh and biologist Mary Gardner opened with speeches about why the environment is so unsuited to any form of residential development.
Speaker after speaker then raised the familiar issues: the bulk and scale of the developments; the huge amount of fill required to floodproof the site; the massive increase of traffic on Ewingsdale Road; a massive sound barrier running along the roadside the length of the development; the increased stress on services from schools to sewage; and the detrimental impact on koalas and other wildlife.
Byron Environment Centre co-ordinator John Lazarus also questioned the validity of any of the plans in the light of the state government’s impending legislation effectively legalising short-term holiday letting, saying that with sale prices likely to top the $1 million mark, homes would likely be snapped up by ‘Airbnb investors’.
Water 1.5m below surface
But it was the words of Byron-based developer Eric Freeman that cut through with the chairman, who was seen to raise his eyebrows as Mr Freeman recounted his experience developing the adjacent Byron Industry Park in the 1990s.
‘We found groundwater at just 1.5 metres below the surface,’ he said adding it was partly caused by ‘water being discharged through the sands from the [then] gravity-fed sewage treatment plant (STP).
Mr Freeman said he subsequently worked with Council to build a vacuum STP to fix the problem but that ‘hundreds of houses’ had been connected since then and he believed it was once again failing.
‘We created road pavements to one metre depth,’ he said, adding they were now ‘rippling like waves on north Centennial Circuit’.
No approval to use drains
Dramatic evidence also came from Tom Vidal of the Belongil Catchment Drainage Board, which is responsible for two major drains responsible for West Byron, the industrial estate and the surrounding areas.
‘We are already finding it difficult to manage the system,’ he told the panel. ‘It’s more complex than any other system in NSW and possibly Australia.’
But then he dropped a bombshell: the drainage board must approve in writing of any development.
According to the developers’ plans, its main drain would be the recipient of all the stormwater from the two estates.
‘We’ve never been contacted and they never responded to requests to get in touch,’ he said.
‘Expert advice suggests their drainage issues are not adequately addressed but they want to discharge into our drainage system without asking, advising, or even consulting us.’
‘Currently we receive 14 megalitres of water a day from the site. By 2025 we estimate this will increase to 25 megalitres (10 olympic swimming pools) per day.
‘If our drainage district is flooded, the town will flood. That is a real possibility and a real threat,’ he said.
Farms becoming flooded
Mr Vidal’s comments were backed up by Skinners Shoot property owner Anthony Pangallo, who said farmers backing on to West Byron found their lower paddocks ‘turning into lakes’ with the amount of water being injected by the STP and believed if the developments went ahead, ‘our properties will become so flooded they will be unfarmable’.
Another landowner, Tim Hochgrebe said his property on Melaleucca Drive ‘is exactly where all the water is going to go.’
‘Despite being direct neighbours to both DAs, we have not been contacted by either developer to discuss it,’ he said.
And their positions were further backed up by Byron mayor Simon Richardson, who recounted how he had once inhabited a tepee at Belongil Fields and found the water rising around him during a rainstorm.
He added, more pointedly, that as the owner of the drainage system, council would categorically refuse permission for the developers to use it for stormwater purposes.
On a lighter note Cr Richardson said Council was not opposed to development that was ‘best practice’ and ‘creative’.
But he said ‘this looks more like something from the ’50s – and even that is probably disrespecting architects and town planners of the 1950s.’
At the conclusion of the session chair Garry West attempted to reassure the audience the panel would not simply be acting as a rubber stamp.
‘My track record, and that of the panel, is that we do listen: we listen to the community and we listen to the planners at Council.
‘My intention is that when we get the Council report we will go onsite in a detailed way and then go back to Council staff with questions,’ he said.
He added there would be another opportunity for the community to address the panel before its ultimate decision was taken.