Seven Mile Beach is to stay open to recreational 4WD use all year ‘round after a council majority effectively ignored staff recommendations to protect the beach in holiday seasons.
Greens Ballina Shire Councillors Simon Chate and Kiri Dicker were the only two to vote against the proposal from Cr Eva Ramsey and seconded by Cr Phillip Meehan at last week’s ordinary council meeting in support of unlimited 4WD access.
The proposal conflicted with staff recommendations on the back of a lengthy report to close the beach to 4WDs during the Christmas / New and Easter holiday periods and the October long weekend, starting next Easter.
Staff said closing the beach during the peak holiday seasons would ‘minimise user conflict by removing vehicles during times when the beach is the busiest’.
‘The beach could be closed for some or all of these periods,’ staff explained in agenda notes.
One-day permits for Seven Mile Beach axed
Staff also recommended changes to a permit system used for 4WD access to Seven Mile Beach, prompting a lengthy and passionate debate from councillors.
Most councillors appeared happy to back a staff call for elimination of one-day passes, as echoed in Cr Ramsey’s motion.
But Cr Ramsey’s motion ignored another staff call to eliminate thirty-day permits and called for the introduction of new seven-day permits, whereas staff had recommended three-day permits.
Call to restrict 4WD permits to six and twelve months lost on casting vote
Independent Cr Jeff Johnson narrowly lost support for an amendment that would have effectively restricted permits to either six or twelve months, with an increase in fees.
‘I am in favour of keeping a six-month and twelve-month permit so that the beach can remain open to local families, fishermen, kite-surfers, and surfers,’ Cr Johnson told the meeting.
‘I don’t believe having a seven-day permit addresses a key issue of overcrowding and issues with the motorists who actually go on to the dunes or drive fast,’ Cr Johnson said, ‘I believe that that would be generally attributed to those with a short-term permit’.
Cr Johnson said people visiting Lennox Head for weekends or holidays were less likely to drive their 4WDs on Seven Mile Beach if they had to spend at least $130 on a long permit.
Staff to start emailing permit-holders
The independent councillor also said the council needed to do its best to remove non-permit holders from Seven Mile Beach, including installation of a boom gate at the beach entrance.
‘We’ve seen solar lights and other options around the place,’ Cr Johnson said, ‘so I’m sure a battery with a boom gate would be able to be installed there’.
Cr Johnson said a new permit system could include emailing permit-holders a code of conduct that would have to be signed off and returned.
Staff at the meeting said they already planned to start emailing permit-holder ‘regardless of the council’s decision’ but that a new boom gate would be more challenging to install thanks to a lack of power at the beach entrance and limitations of solar power.
Cr Meehan refuses to ‘support localism’
Cr Meehan spoke against the amendment, accusing it of discriminating against people from outside the Ballina Shire.
‘I’ve replied to a couple of people or organisations who’ve written to us about this matter and I’ve stated quite publicly that I’m not going to support localism,’ Cr Meehan said.
Cr Meehan said restricting access to six and twelve-month permits was effectively telling visitors they weren’t allowed to do what locals were allowed to do.
Cr Johnson raised a point of order that the permit system was open to everyone regardless of where they lived but Cr Meehan said he was entitled to his opinion.
Councillors were evenly divided over Cr Johnson’s amendment, with Cr Eoin Johnston seconding and Greens Councillors Chate and Dicker voting for along with Cr Rodney Bruem.
Mayor Sharon Cadwallader used her casting vote against the amendment.
Ghost crabs invisible in council beach management policy
Speaking in favour of Cr Johnson’s amendment, Greens Cr Dicker said pitting locals against tourists and other visitors was ‘a red herring’.
Cr Dicker said the real issue was the cumulative and often visible environmental impact to beach biodiversity that’s caused by large numbers of vehicle movements on the beach.
She said she believed the correct policy response was a reduction in the overall numbers of vehicles exiting and accessing the beach but that she didn’t agree with closing the beach during peak times.
‘I feel like that’s just annoying people for no environmental benefit,’ Cr Dicker said.
The Greens councillor said there were decades of peer-reviewed scientific studies on the impacts of 4WDs on beaches, with many studies focussed on southeast Queensland.
‘The research shows that 4WD-ing on the beach is an inherently degenerative practice regardless of how well intentioned the driver might be,’ Cr Dicker said.
Cr Dicker said Lennox Head was growing rapidly, becoming ‘increasingly affluent’, and owning a 4WD was ‘fast becoming the norm’.
She referred to concerns for various beach animals and plants, including turtles, nesting shorebirds and ghost crabs.
A 2012 study in Western Australia found even low levels of off-road vehicle traffic was enough to cause measurable shifts in the diversity density and structure in invertebrate communities, Cr Dicker said.
Beach permit app to be considered
Another amendment from Cr Stephen McCarthy to have all permit fees increased by 100% lapsed.
Cr McCarthy had wanted the extra revenue used for boom gates at the beach access entrance.
Councillors ultimately voted in support of investigating technology, including an app, ‘to better manage the permit system as part of its digital strategy’ and for staff to erect ‘clearer signage at the beach access point which indicates usage and penalties’.
The majority agreed with the staff recommendation for the council to continue to use its existing Ballina Coastal Reserve Plan of Management as the ‘overarching management framework for the coastal reserve’.