ESC presentation by Russell Schneider AM, President, Eurobodalla Coast Alliance Inc
Mayor Innes and Councillors
First, although somewhat belatedly, I and ECA would like to formally congratulate you on your election to this office and assure you of our desire, whenever possible, to work with you positively and constructively.
The last time I spoke in these Council Chambers it was to appeal to your predecessors to take action to deal with the bat plague in Batemans Bay. Today the issue is different but the reason is the same. Just as I appealed to Council to respect the needs of those adversely affected residents in Batemans Bay I am here today to do the same, this time for the residents of Surfside and surrounding districts. Both, like the Batemans Bay swimming pool and Bowling Club purchase are representative of a much bigger issue: the extent to which Council takes ratepayer wishes into account.
There is a perception in the community that at various levels Council is more concerned with appeasing ideological bureaucrats in Sydney who have no sympathy for, or understanding of, the problems of people who live in regional areas such as Eurobodalla
The issue I wish to raise today concerns a Coastal Management Plan study which has identified 1000 properties as being affected by coastal hazards. Several thousand more properties are, or likely to be, affected by Council flood and erosion studies, yet many are unaware of the severe ramifications this has on their rights to develop and retain their property, or have it adequately serviced by Council in the future. This salami style approach to hazard identification tends to minimise the extent of the problem rather than clearly identifying how many will be disadvantaged.
ECA first became interested in the Surfside situation with the Wharf Road fiasco in which Council was urged by a State Government Advisory committee, the Coastal Panel, to resume land at north Batemans Bay without compensation. A member of that Panel also advised the Council on the management plan for the area and is now believed to be part of a consortium to consider stage 3 which deals with mitigation and adaption. That same person recently expressed the view that Surfside should never have been developed and clearly supports the concept of planned retreat—that is, abandonment of property to the sea.
Residents of Surfside have asked me to express their view that they cannot have confidence in any study undertaken by those who they believe have preconceived ideas about planned retreat—abandonment rather than mitigation and defence.
And before it is argued Council must take the advice of “experts” I would point out that once upon a time all the theoretical experts believed the world was flat. Practical seamen like Christopher Columbus , Vasco deGama and Juan Sebastián Elcano proved them wrong.
Surfside and Wharf Road’s problems don’t need ideological solutions such as “planned retreat”. They need practical engineering solutions.
Residents are particularly concerned that a previous Council adopted an infrastructure—sewage, water and roads-- abandonment policy at least as long ago as 2015. I have already written to the Mayor asking whether this is current Council policy and am pleased you have indicated you are investigating this. I table that letter.
Since then, however, ECA has been provided with a Development Approval dated September 2013 which unequivocally commits Council to planned or “managed” retreat in respect of private properties as well as abandoning its own infrastructure. This is extremely alarming.
Under this approval if four high tides in a year affect the property “the development and all associated structures must be removed and the land form returned to its predevelopment (natural form) state and suitably vegetated to the satisfaction of Council.” This is land seizure at its worst!
Adding insult to injury the DA requires the landowner to register a covenant on their land title “that will require that all buildings and structures be removed from the site when affected by coastal processes.” It dictates the wording of the covenant requiring it to state:
“the buildings and works used in connection with the development must be removed immediately to an approved location by the owner of the land. Further the owner must return the landform of the subject land to its natural predevelopment state and vegetate the site.” At their own expense. This amounts to appalling theft of people’s property. These draconian conditions effectively render properties worthless, although Council will no doubt continue to collect rates, or simply resume the property for its own purposes.
Following Council’s decisions on Wharf Road ECA asked a member, Mr Viv Sethi , an engineer, to report on the cause of major erosion in the Clyde inner bay and the loss of the eroded sand shoals to Corrigans Beach reserve.
This report has been endorsed by one of the most highly regarded world renowned coastal engineer ,Angus Jackson,.
The findings in the Sethi report do not support the hypothesis that the Wharf Road erosion was “gradual and imperceptible” as declared by the NSW Coastal Panel. The erosion was caused by engineering works and there are questions of liability and responsibility to be answered.
Early action should be taken to withdraw the Management Plan while the matter is investigated, and mitigation/ reclamation solutions examined. Suggestions that the erosion is part of dynamic movements in the bay are refuted by the report, which establishes a clear and consistent co-relation between the erosion at Wharf Road and works carried out by the State including the construction and augmentation of a breakwater and channel maintenance dredging works
This has left the suburb exposed to storms associated with major east coast lows and could see the suburb destroyed by another major storm, like those experienced in the mid 1970’s. The Wharf Road owners have asked Council to include all of Surfside in the request for mitigation planning by recognised experts in coastal defences. Rectification work should be the financial responsibility of the state government . ECA and, I am sure, Surfside residents will actively support this.
The question remains whether the apparent council policy of abandoning infrastructure in potential sea level rise affected areas and forcing property owners to remove their houses still exists, for it does not fit with a council that is claiming to support defensive coastal engineering and mitigation planning. If it does not action should be taken to remove the abandonment requirements of the DA’s.
Indeed, proposals that Council might construct defensive works in the Wharf Road area if the land is returned to Council ownership when the new Batemans Bay Bridge is built suggest it has one rule for itself and another for ratepayers.
The affected property owners are entitled to know where they stand.
Confidence would be further restored if Council were to publish the technical brief that was provided to the consultants(Umwelt and UNSW) byl for preparing all stages of the Coastal Management Plan and, on behalf of the residents, I ask that be done urgently.
Madame Mayor, I do not doubt your sincerity or commitment on this and related issues, nor that of your fellow Councillors. In the last resort, however, when making a decision you will no doubt be called on to rely on the advice of your public servants and they, in turn, will no doubt rely on the advice of those considered to be “experts”. As this is quite clearly an issue for which there is a theoretical ideological answer, which is basically abandonment of assets and properties, or defence, which is an engineering solution, you are entitled to consider all alternatives, especially in an area where many affected residents have no confidence in those proposing one option: surrender.
ECA believes that an engineering solution is much more practical, more economical (as it avoids the need to duplicate expensive existing infrastructure), and more socially just than abandonment unless “managed retreat” includes seizure of property without compensation…and while that may be less costly it cannot be considered to be fair or just. It is fundamentally theft.
I note that in the past Councillors have been advised to take a certain course of action because State agencies might not approve more locally desirable ones. This is why the bats are back. Rather than guess at the wishes of State Ministers or agencies Council should put forward what it believes to be right and insist on a definite ruling from those authorities rather than be guided by conjecture. Then the people know exactly who is responsible and can act accordingly. In the absence of such action the community can only see you, their Councillors, as being at fault.
Finally may I make the point that you all, as our elected representatives, have a duty to represent the community to the Council , not the Council (or State government agencies such as OEH) to the community.
As Councillors you will always be encouraged by the bureaucracy, internally and externally, to look at the “big picture” which is a way of allowing big government to ride roughshod over individual freedom. You are also encouraged to think about the “long term” and “future generations”, as though you have no responsibility for the here and now. But as Councillors you must remember you were not elected as apologists for the public service, but to protect the interests of the little people, those who rely on you to represent and protect them from authoritarianism and dictatorship. Not just in the future, but now.
I am not a theoretical “scientist” or “expert” but I am a student of history, and history tells me that gloomy predictions rarely come true. History tells me that human beings are expert at one thing: adaption. I am sure, like me, none of you are so arrogant as to believe you can predict the future. But like me I am sure you believe we should be optimistic about our capacity to deal with it, and not forget our obligations to the here and now.
If Council’s policy had applied in 1250 AD Amsterdam today would be under water.
And on a final note, I may be back here soon to talk about bats and swimming pools. Thank you.
 (Magellan’s navigator who took over after Magellen was killed in the Philippines