Clarke’s Beach cafe told to prepare for ‘future retreat’ in the face of severe coastal erosion

Paul Bibby

The state government is set to install sand bags at Clarkes Beach to protect the Beach Byron Bay cafe and Whites Cottage from the coastal erosion that has decimated the popular strip.

But it says the bags are just a temporary measure to give the building owners time to ‘reconfigure’ their premises, and that the cafe owner has been told to prepare for ‘future retreat’.

High tides caused significant erosion of the dunes at Clarkes Beach in Byron Bay. Photo Rosie Lee.

Management strategies were discussed at an urgent meeting held last month by the various state and local agencies who have responsibility for the Clarkes Beach area, including Council, Crown Lands and the Environment Department.

Clarkes has been severely affected by erosion over the past 12 to 18 months, with tonnes of sand stripped away exposing a rock shelf beneath. The beach is littered with uprooted pandanus trees, and the eroded dune line is now within metres of the Beach Byron Bay cafe. 

There has also been further exposure of Aboriginal middens.

A report of last month’s meeting, contained in the agenda to this week’s Byron Council planning meeting, states that NSW Minister for Property and Water, Melinda Pavey, has ordered the installation of geobags (sand bags) in front of the cafe and cottage under emergency works provisions.

The bags are only to remain for 90 days, to ‘allow time for works to be done to reconfigure those buildings and to avoid an “uncontrolled incident”,’ Council staff said in their report of the meeting.

At the end of the 90 days these bags, along with the sand bags that Reflections Holiday Parks have already installed next to their Clarkes Beach caravan park, will be removed.

Beach Byron Bay cafe operating as normal

In a crucial development for the Beach Byron Bay cafe, the report declares that: ‘The cafe lessee has been directed to take steps to separate the beach side deck from the main building to ready it for removal if required, and to commence preparation for reconfiguration of the building for future retreat’. 

However, it is important to note that the building is not about to be shut down and is able to continue operating as normal.

‘The building has been certified as structurally sound and we are continuing to operate as normal,’ said cafe owner Ben Kirkland.

‘They have put in short term protection so that the various agencies involved can look at the long term solutions. We are grateful to the council and state government for their action to ensure that we are able to keep operating – we employ 50 people and have over 195,000 customers per annum come through the cafe.’

Reflections wants sandbags to stay

However, Reflections Holiday Parks told the meeting that they would seek to make the bags in front of their caravan park a permanent addition.

According to the Council report, they have engaged consultants to provide them with advice on the potential to prepare a development application for the works.

This could set the stage for a ‘Battle of the Bags’ akin to that taking place at the badly eroded Belongil Beach between Byron Council and the owners of multi-million dollar beachside properties.  

Representatives from a number of the agencies also expressed their views about the causes of the erosion; most were generally in agreement. This included an expert from the NSW Environment Department’s Sciences Group, who said the erosion was owing to a general reduction in the frequency of southerly swells, which played an important role in bringing sand to Clarkes Beach and Main Beach.

At the same time, there was an increase in the frequency of east and/or north east swells – patterns that have the effect of taking sand away from the beaches.

‘The net result over time is that the shoreline is undergoing a long-term trend of landward recession…’ the expert reportedly told the meeting.

‘Shoreline recession will also be influenced by sea level rise. An erosion period is occurring at the moment with no way to estimate when it will end. History tells us that the shorelines will eventually accrete [gather more sand]; however, when this will occur there is no way to know’.

The meeting also heard that government departments had been working with with Reflections and representatives of the Arakwal people on a salvage plan and retrieval works for the Aboriginal midden that has been impacted by the erosion. 

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