Byron Shire residents are questioning why Byron Shire Council is cost shifting their responsibilities, after it emerged that Council staff are seeking to charge property owners up to $180 per hour to confirm any developments on their property are authorised.
It comes as Council staff recently sent out ‘robo’ or ‘show cause’ letters to a significant number of ratepayers in Upper Main Arm, without councillors’ knowledge. Staff claimed landowners have ‘unauthorised development’ on their property.
Plans to send out the same letters to the entire hinterland have been confirmed by Greens Mayor Simon Richardson and Director Sustainable Environment and Economy, Shannon Burt.
Ms Burt justifies the aggressive approach by saying it gives landowners a ‘heads up’, and is based on the Unauthorised Dwelling Policy 2020.
Yet that policy is yet to go on public exhibition and hasn’t been adopted by councillors. Many questions have been raised around how such a policy could be achieved, given complex, historical issues of unauthorised dwellings in the Shire.
During a meeting called by Main Arm Residents Association (MARA) last Saturday, to discuss community concerns over the letters, it became clear that Council staff failed to check historical mapping, and their own rates history, to determine if the dwellings had been there prior to Council’s planning records.
This led to numerous approved properties receiving the ‘robo’ letters.
One elderly property owner told The Echo they were told by staff that they will have to pay up to $180 per hour for Council to search aerial photographs and their rates history, as well as further costs for inspections, to confirm their property is authorised.
The charges by Council are based on the Unauthorised Dwelling Policy 2020 fact sheet, which is a result of the June resolution, led by Greens Cr Sarah Ndiaye. That policy was buried as a sub-section in another resolution dealing with unauthorised dwellings in Skinners Shoot.
Like the ‘robo’ letters, councillors were unaware of these cost structures being put in place as a result of Cr Ndiaye’s resolution.
Both Crs Cate Coorey and Jeannette Martin (Greens), told The Echo that it was an unreasonable outcome for ratepayers and landowners.
‘I understand why residents could have been upset by Council – it was [a] very formal [letter], using what I call “Council speak” and it can be intimidating,’ Ms Martin told The Echo.
‘I also understand why the idea of getting compliance up-to-date could be financially difficult for some. I will be pushing that planning staff be kind and reasonable in this process and deal on a case-by-case basis. I was disappointed, to put it politely, at the fees Council quoted of $130–$180 per hour – that is not reasonable!’
Greens mayoral candidate and president of MARA, Duncan Dey, told The Echo that, ‘The methodology of this project is atrocious, the lack of forethought, the unwillingness of our councillor reps, and of staff, to talk to people first’.
‘Council should have called Saturday’s meeting [not residents]. And the June thought-bubble resolution that staff say justifies it all was never even shared in a Council agenda’.
Mr Dey added that Council have confused the public by publishing a fact sheet online with the heading Unauthorised Dwelling Policy 2020.
‘That would confuse anyone…The policy it refers to hasn’t been adopted by Council. It hasn’t even been on public exhibition yet.
‘Council is the holder of records. They should have searched those records (for free) before sending out robo-letters. Putting the onus on residents to prove their innocence is just plain wrong.’
At Saturday’s Main Arm meeting, some attendees said they weren’t against eventually becoming authorised and regularised, but they were concerned about the process, and Council staff’s aggressive approach.
Issues of Council targeting Main Arm, the potentially significant costs to meet current regulations, why it was done during a world wide pandemic, and the fact that Australia is heading into its first recession in 30 years, were also raised.
Staff not trusted
Various attendees cited existing and previous dealings with the Council’s planning department, which appeared to support both preferential treatment for some residents/landowners and vexatious and antagonistic targeting of other residents/landowners by the planning department.
Lack of transparency, failure to properly oversee and investigate DAs fairly, and obstructive behaviour were some of the issues cited.
However, while councillors appear to understand that the staff actions were less than ideal, they have defended the policy.
Councillor Sarah Ndiaye told The Echo that, ‘Unauthorised dwellings have presented a challenge for decades, and last summer’s fire season highlighted the dangers that some of these dwellings present and the liability Council potentially faces’.
Councillor Basil Cameron (independent) said, ‘Council needs to better consider its approach to residents, especially as the intention is to provide some relief for those living in unapproved dwellings’.
‘The purpose of the draft Unauthorised Dwellings Policy 2020 is to expand opportunities for unapproved dwellings to be regularised,’ he told The Echo.
‘Importantly, the policy does not in any way change existing enforcement policy. The health and safety of residents and the environment will continue to be the highest priority for action.’
MARA has written to all the councillors asking that a mayoral minute be put to Thursday’s Council meeting. It calls on Council to ‘cease hinterland action on perceived unauthorised dwellings’ in Main Arm and ‘that if Council ever resumes a program like this, it do so only after considering public submissions on its Unauthorised Dwellings Policy, after resolving to adopt such a policy, after resolving on the parameters for Council action under the policy (instead of leaving that up to staff) and after life normalises from COVID-19.’
However, Cr Lyon has said that he won’t be supporting this motion.
‘I understand that some people are concerned by the process; however, as I outlined last week, the moratorium is very much in place, and these letters are the initiation of conversations.
‘Fine-tuning the “how” of this policy, in terms of its implementation over the next year, once we get through this initial consultation phase, will be my priority in the drafting of the policy document to ensure that we cover all the bases on what is a complex and sensitive issue, particularly during COVID-19. However, I won’t use COVID-19 as an excuse to not follow up on dwellings that are unsafe or unsanitary.’
Staff and all the other councillors were asked to respond to detailed questions on the issue, but nothing was recieved by deadline.