Andrew Fraser | July 04, 2009
FOR five days in late May, John Vaughan watched his Byron Bay beachfront property get smashed by a storm so severe that its type only occurs once every 100 years.
After watching his front yard disappear into the sea as the huge swell came closer, he decided to take action.
He had been emailing Byron Shire Council for the previous two days, asking for help to restore the sandbags in front of his house on land owned by both him and council. The bags would have kept his property safe from the snarling sea.
On the afternoon of the fifth day he had assembled a small army of contractors ready with sandbags and rocks to build a wall to keep the sea at bay, but the response he got from the council was not the go-ahead to swing into action to save his property, but a legal writ preventing him from doing any work in accordance with the council’s “planned retreat” policy.
The policy has existed for 20 years but the president of business group Byron United, Ed Ahern, said the way it was being interpreted by the Greens-dominated council meant that houses close to the sea were simply being abandoned to the elements as a way of ending what the council saw as undesirable coastal development.
“If residents can’t protect themselves from high seas, there are possible dire consequences for the whole town,” he said.
The fierce storm in late May stopped soon after the council writ arrived, but its legacy is still apparent at Belongil Beach, which has almost disappeared.
Byron is not the only area affected. On the Sunshine Coast, some 250km north, Mooloolaba beach has also almost disappeared since the same storm.
But Byron is still experiencing a political, and soon to be legal, storm as a result of what happened to Mr Vaughan in late May.
After the council sought an injunction in the Land and Environment Court to stop him sandbagging, he took out another writ to allow it to go ahead. Three weeks after the storm, some limited sandbagging took place.
The council is drawing up a coastal management plan, with a draft due next month, but signs are that residents on the beachfront will not be able to sandbag their homes or build rock walls for protection from wild seas that are becoming more regular.
Byron Shire mayor Jan Barham, the only elected Green mayor in Australia, said yesterday many of the beachside houses in Byron Bay had been built without full consent. Like many coastal towns, Byron Bay had developed ad hoc, and she wanted a more formal approach to coastal development.
“Planned retreat” from the coastline had been council policy since 1988, and anyone who had built a house on Belongil Beach since then had done so “in the full knowledge that they were taking a risk”, she said.
“It’s like building in a flood-affected area; you can build there if you like, but you’ve got to take the risk,” she said.
Ms Barham said the council had taken action against Mr Vaughan because “he did not approach us, he chose not to co-operate with council”.
“There is a lot of misinformation about this,” she said.
The planned retreat policy might be fine for future development, but it fails to address the problem of existing houses, especially those, like Mr Vaughan’s, built before 1988.
Belongil Beach is the sort of place that was only known to locals for years, but now it is among the most sought-after beachfronts in Australia.