Residents in Main Arm are shocked after Byron Shire Council staff sent out letters accusing property owners of having unauthorised development on their land while there is both a moratorium in place and an unauthorised dwelling policy currently on public exhibition.
Councillors seemed to be taken by surprise that the letter had been sent, with councillor Cate Coorey telling The Echo that the policy was currently on public exhibition until 24 September and ‘therefore staff have bolted at the gate’ by having pre-emptively sent out the letters.
Councillor Michael Lyon agreed, saying that ‘the [unauthorised dwelling] policy was endorsed, and would not be adopted until it came back to Council’ once public submissions had closed.
One local, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Echo that it seemed to be a phishing letter as it stated ‘Council has identified unauthorised development at the above-mentioned address,’ but that it didn’t identify any particular issues.
‘They are assuming that things are unauthorised and are essentially asking people to dob themselves in.’
According to multiple sources that The Echo spoke to, it appears that Council has targeted houses for which it lacks records. It is well known that the Byron Shire Council records are incomplete as a result of losing records in a fire, then a flood, and the fact that many records were put onto microfiche that subsequently went mouldy. Numerous properties that received letters have dwellings that pre-date Council records.
However, some of these residents have since been informed that as their dwellings were built prior to records being kept by Council, Council is not interested in them after all.
‘This is the wrong way to go about rectifying unauthorised dwellings,’ pointed out the source.
Residents have been left upset and highly stressed in some circumstances with many older residents saying that they are concerned about losing their homes. Concerns raised included the cost of bringing residences up to current fire regulations and building standards, as well as the risk of a demolition order.
However, Cr Coorey also pointed out that, ‘A lot of people are profiting substantially from illegal (and also substandard and unsafe) dwellings – obviously not everyone.’
‘We are asking people who are doing the wrong thing to take the opportunity to begin this [process] and make amends,’ she told The Echo.
‘In principle I’m in agreement with the idea of having houses regularised but it isn’t a simple issue in many cases,’ said another Main Arm resident who didn’t want to be identified.
‘There are houses that have been partially built on other people’s land, access issues, some properties are dealing with government departments to sort out some aspects, and that can take well over ten years to resolve. Council need to really consider the complexities that people may face in sorting these issues out. How is someone supposed to afford $40–$100,000 worth of upgrades on an aged pension? One to two years just isn’t enough time, for some issues it will take five to ten years to resolve.’
Lack of confidence
Many residents also cited a lack of confidence that Council staff would fairly deal with the issues. This was highlighted when some applicants were told to withdraw their applications or others – like Ben McIntosh from New Brighton (see The Echo of 26 August, page 7), who was told he couldn’t apply for regularisation – were refused an explanation from staff as to why they were excluded.
Responding to questions from The Echo, Mayor Simon Richardson said, ’The last thing I want, or have ever wanted, is to kick people out of their homes across the hinterland. I lived in many of these types of dwellings myself… and usually they are owned by people who care for the land and the community. That is why a number of years ago I pushed to have the brochure made to show owners ways they could become compliant… Council staff were, and still are, of the same belief. This is a housing issue, and we don’t want to create a homelessness issue.’
However, another local resident pointed out that, ‘There are reasons to be concerned, especially as Council is not in a position to say how the process ends for properties that cannot trivially be made compliant.’
This was supported by another local who highlighted that the letter didn’t include the information that under pathway 3, also in the draft Unauthorised Dwellings Policy, enforcement action can include an order to ‘demolish/restore to previously approved use as appropriate’. This order has been used in relation to the dwelling of Mr McIntosh in New Brighton.
The letter from Council requests a response by 5 October from the recipient. According to many residents this has caused considerable consternation, distress and confusion to residents who are asking why Council are providing a 15 month moratorium, but then demanding responses within a month. However, according to Cr Lyon it is just staff giving a ‘heads-up’ to ‘start a conversation’.
‘The deadline date is a request to respond to what is a “show cause” letter, not an enforcement letter,’ he said in response to The Echo’s questions.
‘Some people have become alarmed at the letter, given the deadline date but I would like to reassure everybody that the original moratorium is very much in place and sometimes the information Council is working off is wrong, such as aerial photography. That is what staff are attempting to do, is open up a conversation and clear up any wrong information, and if there are unapproved dwellings on site, start the process towards compliance.’
More letters to come
While Main Arm appears to be the first area targeted, according to Mayor Richardson, Council ‘will be batching letters in other areas progressively’.
‘I think it is also key to acknowledge that though liability is a legitimate concern when it comes to bushfire risk, what is more important for staff, councillors and indeed all of us, is loss of homes, livestock and human life. The hundreds of people who packed Mullum Hall last year were not “liabilities” – they were scared, concerned, and at-risk locals – and I was one of them.’
Concerned residents have brought the issue to the attention of the Main Arm Residents Association (MARA) who are organising a meeting for concerned residents and other members of the community who would like to explore how to respond. The meeting will take place at the Main Arm Store this Saturday, 19 September at 3pm. Otherwise, you can leave a message on 6684 5152 and a member of MARA will get back to you to discuss your concerns.