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February 27, 2024

What’s next for Ballina? Mayor Sharon Cadwallader’s view

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Ballina Mayor Sharon Cadwallader. Photo David Lowe.

This is part two of an in-depth interview with Ballina’s Mayor Sharon Cadwallader. The first part examined what’s happened since she was elected in 2022. The Echo also asked Cr Cadwallader what she sees coming along the road for Ballina in 2023, and beyond.

Housing crisis

There are still many people made homeless by the floods who are living in temporary accommodation in Ballina, mainly in tourist parks. Cr Cadwallader said, ‘I have been touching base with some of the people now living here, and they’re from right across the region, including Lismore, Coraki and other parts of Ballina.’

How are they going? ‘I think most people are just happy to have a roof over their heads and trying to live their lives as normally as they possibly can.’

People listen to speakers at the recent Lindy Lucena vigil. Photo David Lowe.

Cr Cadwallader mentioned that Lindy Lucena, recently murdered in a shocking incident of domestic violence, was herself a flood refugee from West Ballina. ‘She lost her home, and then that happened.’

And what about the wider housing crisis? There are more and more stories about the people who keep the town running being unable to afford to live here. Are you able to talk about that? ‘Yes definitely. We need more support from government,’ said Mayor Cadwallader.

For social housing projects? ‘Yes, and we need more incentives for developers to build affordable housing. There’s a big difference between social housing projects and affordable housing projects.

‘Largely, social housing has to be the responsibility of state government – state and federal government – because it’s something that council doesn’t have the resources to be involved in, even though we’ve discussed it. And I’m sure we’ll be having further discussions about that. But we’ve also discussed things like affordable housing projects as well. How can we make it more affordable?’

She gave the example of the Cumbalum development, with affordable housing included as part of the DA for the commercial precinct. ‘I think that’s a great outcome.’ And could that happen elsewhere?

‘Definitely,’ said Cr Cadwallader. ‘I think that’s something we have to not only be encouraging, but insisting on, because it’s not going to change. If if developers don’t change their mindset and councils don’t recognise the urgency and the need, we’re just not going to be able to get there.

‘And particularly in a coastal town like Ballina. People don’t want to leave if their grassroots are here. Their families are here. And particularly, we need frontline service people, our ambulance officers and paramedics, our police officers, we need them to be able to afford to be here.’

She said that in the past Ballina Council would get a hundred applications for each position  advertised, but not now, because Ballina had become unaffordable.

Building in Ballina Shire. Photo David Lowe.

Growing pains

During COVID, Ballina saw a massive influx of cashed-up people from the cities who discovered they could telecommute from paradise, worsening the housing crisis and also causing long delays in development application processing.

Sharon Cadwallader agreed there were ‘real challenges’ in processing the sheer number of DAs.

She said she put out a call in Sydney for help with this when she was there as the Northern Rivers Joint Organisation Chair, which was answered by another council as well as support from the state government ‘flying squad’, which has since been approved for another financing round.

‘We’re continuing to experience this exponential growth and development,’ she said. ‘Ballina has well and truly been discovered, and certainly, as the regional center for the Northern Rivers, we’ve got our challenges there.

‘We need to make good, strong decisions to make things the best they can be,’ continued Cr Cadwallader. She gave the example of waiving DA fees for granny flats as an attempt to stop the urban sprawl in Alstonville.

What about short term letting? Sharon Cadwallader said she believes the situation is ‘not as bad as it’s portrayed to be’, though she said she hadn’t seen the latest statistics.

What about the long term rentals that have been taken out of play? ‘It’s a bit of a Catch 22, because we don’t have enough accommodation for visitors,’ she said. ‘We just don’t have that in our shire, and while there’s people coming to stay, they’re bringing in money to the town.

Ballina’s Mayor Sharon Cadwallader. Photo David Lowe.

‘Those businesses are putting people in jobs. So our unemployment rate remains low, which means people are able to stay and work here rather than have to leave town to find work. So I don’t think it’s creating the biggest issue for us here in Ballina.’

She said there had been ‘no response at all’ to Ballina Council’s mailout to absent homeowners to consider placing their properties for long term rental.

She wonders if people in need could afford the sort of properties that are being rented out on AirBNB, even if they did become available.

Nature under pressure

Meanwhile Ballina (and particularly Lennox) continues to expand in all directions, bringing predictable pressures on infrastructure, parking and the natural environment, which is the ultimate reason many people moved here in the first place. The biodiversity strategy (which is currently on exhibition and open for feedback), documents what is happening in alarming detail.

Sharon Cadwallader says it’s ultimately out of Ballina Council’s hands how big Ballina gets, but there are things council can do to mitigate human impacts.

Wildlife warning to traffic on Ballina coast road. Photo David Lowe.

She gives the example of virtual fencing, which is being investigated to see if it will reduce the large numbers of wildlife getting killed on the road from East Ballina to Lennox.

Cr Cadwallader also said, ‘It would be good to get some of that traffic off the coast road there, which is why the North Creek Bridge is really an important project.’

She said the bridge had been brought forward from 30 years to under 10 years, ‘because that would take all the traffic from Lennox to the airport.’ She says the studies for Barlow Lane (which would reduce traffic through the middle of town) are also advancing.

Lennox and beyond

After a lot of grumbling about disruption to businesses and tourists, Cr Cadwallader says she is now getting ‘absolutely fantastic’ feedback about Lennox’s transformation via the first stages of the Lennox Village Vision.

‘It just reminds me of Santorini,’ she said. ‘You can stand in some of the shops there and look straight out at the ocean’.

Ross Park, Lennox Head.

As well as the new spaces for vehicles and pedestrians, the upgrade of Ross Park, and new toilets, she says there’s ‘more to come’ for the village, as well as expansion of the ‘world class, recreational coastal pathway’ which is drawing visitors from near and far.

Mayor Cadwallader is also enthusiastic about the idea of an artificial reef ‘within a five kilometre radius’ of Ballina, recently mooted by the Deputy Premier.

She said this would be a boon for recreational fishers and divers, although no environmental impact studies appear to have been done, and the whole project was surprising news to other Ballina councillors The Echo spoke to.

Cr Cadwallader has also been an enthusiastic advocate for extending and linking rail/bicycle trails with Bangalow and Byron Bay, and says negotiations are proceeding with Byron Council to find the best route.

‘Once again, we have to make sure we look after the environment,’ she said. ‘And at the same time, provide something for our community.’ She says the extended trail network will get more people active, and more vehicles off the road.

‘These are the reasons why people are so drawn to our area,’ she said, ‘because we put the environment front and center with everything we do.’

Cr Cadwallader suggests that the idea of using offsets to replace the endangered ecological communities at the new Lennox fire shed/childcare centre site, is also a ‘common sense’ and environmentally sound decision.

4WD tracks on Seven mile Beach. Photo supplied.

Flood risks and 4WDs

Because of its geography, Ballina is one of the most exposed parts of eastern Australia in terms of the climate emergency, as was illustrated graphically in the 2022 flooding event. While Ballina Council has been criticised for going backwards in terms of its response to climate issues, Sharon Cadwallader says she’s focusing on practical solutions.

‘We’re going to get the drains cleared,’ she said, ‘because that can minimise the impact.’

She’s also looking to the forthcoming CSIRO study to provide scientifically grounded flood mitigation ideas. ‘That way we’ll know what’s going to work and what won’t work, so we won’t be throwing good money after bad… Let’s find out what the science says.’

She says mitigation work will be needed in Lennox as well, which brought the discussion to the contentious issue of 4WDs on Seven Mile Beach, most recently the site of drag racing and other dangerous, environmentally destructive activities, despite the presence of turtles and increasingly obvious cumulative damage.

Cr Cadwallader says ‘a lot of fines’ are being issued for dangerous driving. ‘In fact I had to make a call on the weekend, to police and to rangers, about some behaviors down there. Queensland number plates. People disrespecting the beach and other users.

Ballina Mayor Sharon Cadwallader. Photo David Lowe.

‘It’s just a tragedy that they’re making it so bad for other people, responsible beach users. We have to stamp it out.’

Will there need to be some kind of new management system? ‘Yes,’ said Cr Cadwallader. ‘Council has already resolved to do that. Better signage, and better measures to protect all users and stamp out this behavior.’

She sees an enhanced role for cameras and other high tech solutions, suggesting visitors are responsible for most of the problems. ‘It’s a shame in lots of ways. But most of our locals are so respectful of the beach. In fact, they clean up after others that aren’t as respectful.’

She says that a locals only tag is not a solution, and the beach needs to remain open to 4WDs so that people with mobility issues and those that have fished all their life can get out there.

‘We have to manage it better,’ she acknowledges. ‘And it’s got to be management that works. So we’re working on that now. It’s not an easy issue. Because we want to protect the wildlife, but we don’t want to block out those people. It’s part of their life. To take that away from them is pretty serious.’

Domestic violence

With Ballina recently being featured on the national news because of Lindy Lucena, and Mayor Cadwallader herself a domestic violence survivor, what does she think should be done next?

Purple Friday shirts are a positive new DV initiative in Ballina. Photo David Lowe.

‘I think that the key is educating people, students in schools need to learn to recognise disrespectful relationships, I really think that’s the key.’

She said Ballina Council and Cherry Street Sports Club staff would soon be wearing the Rotary’s anti-DV shirts on Fridays, to normalise the conversation and get the issue further into the open, where it can be dealt with.

‘Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate,’ she said. ‘It cuts across all classes of society, all towns, villages, cities, it’s everywhere. And you can’t bury it, you can’t hide it.

‘I think the more it’s brought into focus, the more opportunity that the conversation starts about what it is. What’s the science? What are the symptoms?

‘It starts with control. From my own personal experience, that’s exactly right. And when perpetrators are allowed to get away with those behaviours, it just increases. I guess the level of control increases, to the point where you actually, like me, find yourself on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood.’

Ballina Mayor Sharon Cadwallader speaks at the Lindy Lucena vigil. Photo David Lowe.

How were you able to escape from that situation? Cr Cadwallader says, ‘I didn’t get the help I needed because I didn’t tell anybody. My children were the only ones that really knew. Like myself, they were probably fearful and ashamed that it was happening, and didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t know how to deal with it.

‘Who wants to break up their family home, who wants to have their dream shattered? I certainly didn’t want that for my children,’ she said.

‘But by not addressing it for what it was, it just got progressively worse and worse, to the point where I almost lost my life. And of course, then I was able to get support. I managed to gain enough strength and courage with the support of others around me and particularly from my church, from my pastor.’

Ballina Byron Gateway Airport. Photo David Lowe.

Finding balance

Returning from the very personal to the public, Mayor Sharon Cadwallader says finding a balance is the key to all of Ballina shire’s big issues, from film industry impacts to parking and roads, from airport noise to 4WDs on beaches.

Is there anything we haven’t discussed that you’re hoping to achieve in 2023? ‘More of the same,’ said Cr Cadwallader.

‘I’d like to be able to see funding locked in for Ross Lane for that upgrade. We’re about to begin stage two of the River Street duplication. It’s important that major projects like this go ahead smoothly.

‘In the run up to the state election, I’d like to see commitments from the major parties on housing. Over many years Ballina Shire Council has done more than its fair share to ensure there’s a pipeline of land available for housing. We just haven’t seen enough investment from state government. Funding has not kept pace with demand, and the housing crisis has to be addressed.

‘We’ve debated council going down the path of what could be best described as a pilot project to build affordable housing, and I supported that as mayor. But we need more support.

Ballina Mayor Sharon Cadwallader with flood quilt, Ballina Shire Council. Photo David Lowe.

‘Getting the basics right has been my first priority. I think Ballina is on a good trajectory. We’ve got a wonderful community,’ said Mayor Cadwallader.

‘We’re very blessed to have the Ballina on Richmond Rotary Club so active in our community. They’re addressing shortfalls in housing. I’ve just had a meeting this morning with them, about building pods. Amazing.

‘I love the way we work together as a region, supporting one another. I think what’s happened to us has brought us closer together,’ she said. ‘For me, I think it’s steady as she goes. I really do.’

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