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Coopers Island Public Gate definitely remains on the agenda

The Public Gate across Coopers Island Road is soon to be back on Council's agenda following the installation of a new cattle grid that now renders the Public Gate obsolete. The previous council, after three years of mismanagement of the fiasco that became known as the "Coopers Island Road Fiasco" eventually gave approval to formalise the gate as a means of cattle control should a cow find itself on the Public Road Reserve. It was argued at the time that, given the requirement for cattle to be supervised at all times as they are herded along a public road, from one paddock to another, the probability of an escape was low, especially when there was the original cattle grid in place to prevent escape onto the highway. It was argued that the old cattle grid was not fit for purpose and alleged that a cow had jumped over it and found themselves on the highway. It what was considered a kneejerk response a Council ranger, with no delegated authority, gave permission for a gate to be erected across a public road. What was subsequently discovered was that the cow was grazing freely on a Public Road reserve with no supervision contrary and that, of further interest, there was no adjacent fencing to the road to keep the cow contained lawfully in its own paddock. Rather than reminding the farmer of the rules that require cattle being moved from one location to another over a public road requiring supervision for the activity, and rather than insisting the farmer reinstall the fence that had been removed along the northern boundary of the public road reserve, the council instead allowed the illegal gate to remain. In terms of legality the gate was considered illegal in that it is a requirement that a gate across a dedicated Public Road such as Coopers Island Road requires a Public Gate permit that is applied for, submissions then received from the public, and then final endorsement by Council before it is then officially Gazetted. Council had sought advice regarding the application of the Right to Farm Act 2019, in response to views expressed by the owners. The legal advice to Council was as follows: ‘The Right to Farm Act does not grant any right to the landowner to use the road for farming activities free from alleged interference by the fishers or the public. There is nothing in the Roads Act or any other legislation giving the landowner rights to use the road in connection with farming activities that are superior to those of other members of the public, including the fishers.’ Unbeknownst to the community there were conversations between various parties with the suggestion that Council sell the road to the farmer. When it was brought to a head in June 2021 it was declared that Coopers Island Road at Bodalla would remain a public road after Eurobodalla Council decided on Tuesday not to sell the road reserve.

Council staff told the Councilors and public in their report that Coopers Island Road was converted to a public road in the 1930s and is currently a public road. The road is used by the owners to access their property and has been used by the public to access the Tuross Lake system for recreational fishing.

The report added “Historically, the area adjacent to Coopers Island Road has been visited by fishers and campers via the public road, who have parked cars, launched kayaks and small craft, and fished from the creek bank, the causeway and the bridge over Bowns Creek.”

The facts are that historically the land was squatted on by John Hawdon in 1848 when he applied for, and received, a Crown Lease of 30,000 acres bounded on the North and East by Coila Lake, on the west by Bodalla Mountains and south by Wagonga River.

What the history books fail to say is that long before John Hawdon the area was the home of the Yuin and that Coopers Island was known as Umeboro Island.

Umeboro Island has long been of significance to the local First Nation people. It has served as a fishing haven for countless generations and in more recent years was the site of considerable First Nation activity as over 100 families lived on the island and cropped beans and peas for market.

In all the engagement that Council has had to date with the community via letters of protest, emails of frustration, public meetings generating petitions and on-site visits with councillors and staff NOT ONCE were the local First Nation community contacted, included, or consulted regarding the proposed sale that would see them lose access to a traditional fishing area and access to the upper reaches of Tuross Lake. Coopers Island Road has long been used by the public to access Bowns Creek, now a designated “Recreational Fishing Haven” for recreational and cultural fishing and more recently for kayaking. It has long dissected a rural property, formerly used for dairy cattle, now used for Wagyu beef production by its new owners.

In June 2021 it was revealed in the processes around the issue that Council had earlier received a request from the landowner to buy the road reserve, citing conflicts between their Wagyu beef production and its use by recreational users. Council said that the time "The property owners erected a gate across the road at the Princes Highway to prevent their cattle jumping the cattle grid, as advised by a Council ranger."

The proposed sale of the road was considered by Councillors in June 2021, who heard presentations from 13 community members who were opposed, as well as the landowners themselves. Council also received a petition to retain Coopers Island Road signed by more than 200 community members.

Council resolved not to close or sell Coopers Island Road to the property owner and to allocate $40,000 to realign the road back onto the road reserve, as the road itself deviated onto private property. Council also indicated it would also install regulatory and advisory signage in the area and write to the landowner requesting their fence across the road near the causeway be removed. Council’s General Manager Dr Catherine Dale said at the time that recreational users could continue to use the road, with respect to the landowner, who is trying to run a business.

“Yesterday’s decision confirms the landowner must accommodate the fishers’ rights to access and fish on the causeway,” she said.

“Similarly, the fishers and the public must accommodate the landowner’s right to move machinery and drive stock along the road and use it generally.” Following on from being given permission to erect a Public Gate the landowner installed a new cattle grid that is of a high standard and fit for purpose. Along with quality abutment fencing the risk of any cows "leaping" the cattle grid are zero. It is evident that the substantive cattle grid was installed due Council indicating it wished to remove the old cattle grid, and also over concerns that a member of the public might leave the Public Gate open. With the new substantive, fit for purpose Cattle Grid and secure fencing in place, and with the farmer advised to responsibly move his heard from one paddock to another under supervision and to cease unsupervised grazing in the road reserve, it is of little surprise that the Tuross Head Progress Association will bring back to the table the issue of the Public Gate and the status of public access to Bowns Creek. The President of the Tuross Head Progress Association told The Beagle "Coopers Island Road remains on our agenda. It has never come off the agenda and there is still much to be done". The "Much to Be Done" comment comes from the intention by both the Association, the Tuross Head community and recreational and cultural fishers to ensure that the access once enjoyed to the waterway was restored. In addition to the restoration of access it has been suggested, encouraged and all but confirmed that funding would be available to remedy any degradation of the salt marsh in the area and that a kayak launching facility that would include a disabled hoist and ramp could be installed. It is argued that presently the confrontation of a gate at the highway serves to turn around visitors to the recreational site rendering a Private Road by all appearances. The threat of prosecution if found leaving a Public Gate open also weighs heavily as a needless impost on the community given that the gate has now been superseded by a substantive, quality cattle grid.

Further reading: Coopers Island Road MUST remain PUBLIC