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Byron Shire
March 3, 2021

Rural residents prepare for ‘compliance invasion’

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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.

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  1. As Abraham Lincoln famously said “Government (should be) of the people, by the people, for the people”. The Byron Shire Council should be acting FOR the people, not against them. The Australian economy has failed the people. There are hundreds of homeless people on the north coast and buying a new house is beyond the reach of thousands more. “Unauthorised” dwellings have arisen to provide cheap, simple dwellings for those that can’t afford to rent or buy a new house in a new subdivision. Many have been built for family members who would otherwise have to move far away from loved ones. Forcing people to sell their homes because they can’t afford to update their homes to the latest council requirements is inhumane. Creating hundreds of homeless people, many old and poor, is insane.
    Dennis Fuller

  2. Instead of hassling older and existing ‘questionable’ structures, how about hitting on the selfish pricks who have openly built dwellings (so called sheds and ‘studios’) to rent out? Council knows about a lot of these existing unauthorised dwellings, but now embarks on this strange path. The problem should not have been left till now its a shitfight. This Council is dysfunctional in so many ways.

  3. The great majority of people living in unapproved dwellings know that they’re not approved, it shouldn’t descend into an argument about what is in Council records.
    Council is doing them a favour by giving them a process to get their houses approved and it’s pretty obvious they should pay for it, not ratepayers.

  4. Many of the unauthorised houses come from the era when the dying agricultural/forestry area from Coffs to the Qld border was repopulated after the 70’s Aquarius festival. The massive re population was anarchic and was appropriately and sympathetically addressed by Lismore Council, who bought in new retrospective regulations for multiple occupancies and Community Title, and no houses were bulldosed. The anarchic repopulation is our historical legacy of those pioneers that turned this area around from dying towns to a world renowned community.
    Owners, I’d cite the example of the Byron Bay Community Centre, where the Construction DA required DA’s for all individual uses but none have been applied for, instead Council has just given “most” Occupation certificates without the required DA. Bruns Surf Club should also note the overtly commercial Community Centre uses such as the theatre and bar avoided car parking charges by Councils largess.

  5. They have to get the money from somewhere to pay the millions need for their rail study to solve Byron’s traffic nightmare by running miniature trams on the single track to Mullum.

    They have already spent nearly $300K on one report and the next one is over $200K to report on the condition of seven of the wooden bridges. The lead consultant charges $340 per hour for those reports so $180 is obviously a bargain.

    • As a local who has recently moved back from over a decade away, seems like nothing has changed from Fast Buck$’s times. The council is in its own little bubble instead of being real locals who have a finger on the pulse and can voice the community’s needs and desires.

      We need to put in people with mortgages and children, people that have bills that they sometimes aren’t sure how to pay and people that actually care about the environmental impact of tourism rather than the dollars tourism brings in. Not rich, bored locals who live the capitalist way and expect everything to revolve around that.

      To me, it seems inevitable that a true great depression is on its way so rather than focusing on expansion per se, we need to be focusing on how to make the community sustainable and AFFORDABLE. This will create a shire that can survive anything the future will throw at us. Sure, a super wealthy elite Byron Bay may be good on the books but when they run out of people who do the dishes in the cafes and wrap the vegetables out the back of the supermarkets (which I have done amongst quote a few other jobs as I grew up here) then they stand to lose the most. Balance is the key here.

      $180 a hour for information that is right there in your computers and archives is just incompetence and gouging. Our taxes pay for you to sit on that chair using that computer, you know. Public servant. No matter what glittery titles you sprinkle on top, that is the name of your role. Public. Servant. Paid by the people for the people.

      Start behaving like it.

  6. If it’s good for one , it’s good for all
    The council doesn’t mind people living in the industrial units , so they shouldn’t mind people living with family and friends and those of us that can be helped by others

  7. People in public office should lead by example, so how about Councillors and Staff all sign statutory declarations (a legal document) that their properties are all legal and get theirs legalised first? This would then set the precedent in terms of due process that the rest of us need to follow. Maybe we could use the same consulting companies some in council use / have an interest in, to help streamline the process? GIPA (freedom of information) can help reveal what goes on behind closed doors. A level playing field?


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