These days the hilltops on Paterson Street in Byron Bay are a place for quiet reflection and enjoying sunsets. Not so 20 years ago, when the area was about to be carved up for an exclusive housing estate!
The fight began when a Sydney based development company called Detala had received development approval to build 14 large houses on the slope opposite the water tower leading down into the Cibum Margil Swamp. The Paterson Hill Action Group, PHAG, was formed in 1997, and by 1999 it was clear the development was about to go ahead.
Early morning vigils were kept on the roads leading to the site. When a low-loader with a large excavator was spotted early on October 28 near Pacific Vista, PHAG members swung into action and Bay FM put out a call to arms. As the low loader was reversing up the upper side of Pacific Vista it was stopped by protesters sitting, arms linked, on the roadway. Up to 40 police were on the scene and started removing people in various paddy wagons. Some protesters resisted and were subsequently charged.
In the meantime the keys to the truck carrying the excavator mysteriously disappeared and it took three hours for replacements to come from Brisbane. There were further delays when the road was blocked by a VW Kombi and a tow truck had to be called.
It was a hot day and as the protest moved into the late afternoon and the truck was approaching the end of the cul de sac it was met by a Holden Commodore in the middle of the road jacked up on concrete blocks. Whenever the police came near, the driver, locked inside, revved the engine to spin the wheels. It took some time before the police were able to drag the driver from the vehicle.
Byron Shire Council and councillors were behind the protesters with Council staff working out a way to stop the work proceeding. The mayor and several councillors and staff were at the protest site, and when it looked as if the truck had reached its destination one of the councillors climbed to the top of the excavator arm. The police could not remove him without the owner being there.
As the day was ending, Council issued a Stop Work Order. Detala had not complied with a Tree Preservation Order. They had not realised that the heathland was home to Dwarf Banksia Trees. The crowd of protesters cheered loudly as the truck left for Brisbane.
The case was referred to The Land and Environment Court, and after some months had passed the owners of Detala entered into negotiations with a group acting for PHAG. An agreement was reached where the NSW state government purchased the land for $1,000,000.
Ultimately the state created The Arakwal National Park and the ‘Detala’ land was incorporated into it.
During the two days of court hearings in Lismore several protesters received convictions. However, Judge Thomas Ducker stated that it was every citizen’s right to protest against illegal or unjust actions. How pertinent to Australia today!
Many in the community saw the heathland area as a precious natural jewel and put 10 years into fighting to successfully prevent that development.
Celebrating 20 years on from The Paterson Hill Blockade there is a gathering, for all who took part and anyone who loves the hilltops, at 2pm on Sunday October 27 at Marvell Hall, Marvell St, Byron Bay.