The long-running fight over the future of the North Byron Parklands festival hub is coming down to the crunch.
On Monday, public submissions were heard at the Ocean Shores Community Centre, concluding the application process.
From here, the matter rests entirely in the hands of the Independent Planning Commission (IPC), which is expected to hand down its final decision early in the new year.
Should the Commission decide in favour of the festival hub’s owners, it will result in a significant and permanent expansion of festival activity on the site, dashing the hopes of those who had hoped to limit the size and scale of the operation.
‘This is the stage where we either gain control as a community or lose it,’ Byron Shire councillor Cate Coorey said.
‘We have to maintain a role for Council and the community. It’s really crucial that if there are to be festivals on that site, that there’s rigorous oversight and monitoring.’
The central elements of the application are to increase the maximum number of patrons at Falls and Splendour in the Grass to 35,000 and 50,000 respectively, and to allow each to run for five days.
There would also be three ‘medium event’ days per year, each with up to 25,000 patrons, five ‘small’ (5,000-patron) one-day community events and two ‘minor (1,500-patron) community events. This would increase the total number of event days from eight to 20.
The applicants are also proposing to build a conference centre on the site, which would operate all year round.
Health & safety risk
In a significant win for the owners, the Department of Planning has recommended that the proposal be approved, subject to a few minor conditions.
Byron Council, on the other hand, is firmly in the other camp.
In a stinging submission to the IPC, Council staff pointed out a range of concerns including parking issues.
They said delays of up to three hours for patrons trying to exit the site each day had led to a significant number to park offsite, many in No Stopping zones.
‘This situation is a public health and safety risk,’ the staff said in their submission.
Council staff also said that the influx of festival patrons into surrounding areas like Brunswick Heads and South Golden Beach was a major issue.
Council was having to put on extra enforcement staff in these areas to enforce rules such as those against illegal camping.
‘Council must remove staff from other important duties and priorities,’ the submission said.
They said the festival should engage staff on a user-pays basis, as they did with police and emergency services.
But the manager of North Byron Parklands, Mat Morris, said the company had been employing private cleaning and security staff to address this issue.
‘We’re very much aware of the potential impact on the towns in the northern part of the Shire and we’ve put in a number of measures to address that,’ Mr Morris said.
The company is adamant that it has taken all reasonable steps to limit the impact of the arts and music venue on the community.
This includes agreeing to contribute up to $120,000 a year to Byron Council’s voluntary tourism fund to assist with spending on local infrastructure, reaching agreements with all but one immediate neighbour, and giving 100 tickets away to residents in the surrounding area.
Mr Morris said that the festival hub should be allowed to operate as intended.
‘The fact is that we have actually been given a legal licence to operate here,’ he said. ‘In a civil society there are rules in place to allow or disallow an activity, and we’ve been allowed to conduct this activity.
‘We’re not a concrete batching plant – at the moment we operate for eight days a year.’
Resident Olga Tresz told The Echo, ‘There were many locals who stayed for the six-hour hearing, where it unsurprisingly appeared to be the same old “environment versus money and jobs” paradigm. A sad and frustrating day for the Nature Reserve and a bora ring positioned exactly under the main stage!’
Byron councillors will have the opportunity to declare their allegiances on the issue at this Thursday’s Council meeting, when they vote on a motion opposing the proposal, put forward by Cr Cate Coorey.
Cr Coorey’s motion raises concerns from residents, including that any increase in patron numbers will exacerbate existing safety issues.
But Mr Morris said the motion contained ‘glaring inaccuracies’.