Many residents are concerned about the high-speed construction of the Emergency Housing Development along the railway corridor in Prince Street, Mullumbimby.
Good idea bad location
The development is the brainchild of Resilience NSW and has the blessing of the Byron Shire Council.
When you first hear about it you think ‘that’s wonderful!, emergency housing for the vulnerable people who were displaced from their homes in the February floods’. When you realise that this site went under more than a metre of water, you start to wonder about the suitability of the site.
The more you look into it the more questions arise and many nearby residents are deeply concerned and distressed. It is not just for the prospective 180 people who will be accommodated in the pods but for the impact on many existing homes. This project has the potential to adversely impact many homes that have never previously been flooded. Artificially raising the land will have devastating consequences.
On a recent door-knock 100 per cent of the residents expressed a feeling of defeat, not being heard, disempowerment, and distress. Their concerns are being ignored by Byron Council and Resilience NSW.
Many of these residents are still unable to live in their own homes after the floods. Their houses are without walls, kitchens, and bathrooms, with some camping in their driveways.
They understand the impact of the flood all too well. Many feel re-traumatised by watching the creation of this temporary village. For future tenants the prospect of having accommodation that will be no safer than what they had to temporarily abandon in the flood does not help.
Proposed site a poor choice because it floods
All concerned residents are in agreement there is a need for such accommodation. We deem the site chosen to be unsuitable and ill-considered. Resilience NSW website states that sites for such accommodation will be chosen on ‘their potential for future flooding’. This site in Mullumbimby is flood prone in the extreme. This is demonstrated by the many houses in close proximity to the site on Prince Street and Station Street. Studies have repeatedly stated Mullumbimby is sensitive to land being artificially raised by introducing fill. This advice has been ignored on this occasion, increasing the danger of future flooding for many residents.
The high flood water in February 2022 meant that it was perilous to attempt evacuation. The seriousness of the flood and telephone communication difficulties meant residents were trapped in their homes.
Locals who had ‘tinnies’ and kayaks were largely responsible for assisting such people. Evacuation centres were filled with tired, traumatised residents. At one stage it was feared the Evacuation Centre (Mullumbimby Ex-Services Club) was in danger of being inundated. Despite this Resilience NSW in collaboration with Byron Shire Council are offering emergency housing to 180 people on some of the most flood prone land in the town. How will we get them to safety and where will we accommodate them if we can get them out?
Vehicles pose a problem
Cars need to also be taken into consideration. Assuming each pod has at least one car associated with it means there will be at least 60 cars in and around the pod village. This leads to concerns around ongoing traffic congestion. It is already difficult to turn west into Mullumbimby from the streets on the northern side of Argyle Street. Requests to see traffic impact studies made public have not been successful as yet. In addition, inadequate parking on site will mean others will have to park on Prince Street, which is an already narrow street with no footpath.
Extra cars on the flood-prone land dismissed as ‘collateral damage’ by Resilience NSW
As evidenced in the last flood, the ability to move your car to safety in rapidly rising floodwaters simply wasn’t possible. Any resident in Mullumbimby remembers the number of cars that were written off in the last flood. Memories are fresh of attempts to get cars to higher ground then walking home through rising floodwaters in the middle of the night. In another flood there will be upwards of 60 extra cars competing for scarce high ground. When questioned on this matter Resilience NSW basically shrugged it off as collateral damage.
A rushed decision
Resilience NSW has stated that the pods themselves will be elevated; however, the ground underneath them will be saturated for months, so basically every time the residents step out of their pods they will be walking and living in a bog. A flood is not a 24-hour event and then it’s over; it’s an ongoing ground and surface-water problem. If there is an attempt solve the mud problem by pouring fill and artificially raising the land that will effectively displace flood waters higher into existing homes. Within three days of a letter being delivered to some residents, stating this development was happening, truckloads of roadbase (fill?) were delivered onto the site. This has been ongoing for two weeks – truck after truck of fill – no wonder the locals are concerned.
There is a question the site may be contaminated from years of trains operating on the tracks. It is on the EPA website as a contaminated site that is going through regulatory procedures before decontamination can commence. Hopefully the site has been tested for asbestos (from the brakes on the trains) and arsenic (used to eradicate termites from the sleepers). It would be pertinent for the testing report to made available to Mullumbimby residents to allay concerns that families are being placed in an unsafe environment.
In 2014 The Echo newspaper reported the rail corridor running through Lismore had been tested and found to be contaminated and is unsuitable for use as a rail trail. Given the same train line with the same trains ran through the centre of this emergency housing development, there are valid concerns and testing results should be made available.
A further concern is the lack of silt fencing on the construction site. Silt fencing is a state government requirement for any building site, let alone one so large on which significant amount of fill has been placed. Environmentally damaging run-off into the river is a very real possibility. This needs to be investigated and rectified.
There is also the concern of possible detrimental health effects as a consequence of placing pods above a 180MW underground electricity cable known as the Terranora Interconnector. It runs north–south through the centre of the land chosen for the pod village and transfers electricity between NSW and QLD.
Cheap and available doesn’t make it suitable
There are many questions and concerns raised by local residents that remain unanswered or unacknowledged. We know that Byron Council has stated the site was always earmarked for housing. However, residential housing (as opposed to a hastily erected pod village) would have had all the correct studies done with rezoning taking place and a DA on display for public comment and participation etc etc… the process would have taken a few years and rightly so. Due diligence and planning rules seem to have been overlooked when it comes to this project. Just because the site is cheap and available doesn’t make it suitable. It is cheap and available because it floods and may be contaminated, which means it is unsuitable.
More thought and planning required
Housing on the site should be undertaken with more thought, sensitivity, and planning together with community consultation. That isn’t what’s happening here. The speed at which this is going ahead and the disregard shown to due process and residents is both alarming and disappointing. Mullumbimby residents deserve the right to be heard and consulted before any more works takes place.
♦ Steve Bellerby is a member of the Mullumbimby Residents Association.