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Time for a rethink?

A rural development west of Nelligen

It’s a beautiful dream, isn’t it. You and the missus are coming up to retirement, and you both deserve it. You’ve worked hard for so many years in Canberra or Sydney or somewhere, raising a family in cramped apartments or small suburban block. And plenty of money in the bank from well-paid jobs and a good retirement package. So, time to move down the coast for its milder climate and more relaxed lifestyle. But where to? Surely not another apartment or small suburban block….

“We’ll have much more time, Dear. We can spread out a bit, have some room for the grand-kids to play when they visit. A big flower garden for you, vege patch and orchard for me, chickens, perhaps even some livestock and a horse or two? And plenty of room to park the caravan, the horse float, the trailer and the boat, and the two four-wheel-drives. What would we need? Let’s keep it modest – don’t want to spend all our time mowing – there’s fishing and travelling to be done! Two hectares sounds about right. That’s 5 acres in the old money – twenty quarter-acre blocks, not that any of our city blocks have been quarter acre since I can remember!”

And that’s the dream the rural property developer is selling. With the support of our Council, who voted recently to facilitate the conversion of rural properties into parcels of smaller rural blocks and to abolish most zoning restrictions across the most hazardous and bushfire-prone lands in our LGA. These changed regulations not only clear the way for many more dwellings in these areas, but also allow highly vulnerable uses (known as Special Fire Protection Purpose (SFPP) developments) such as childcare centres, educational centres and tourist accommodation in these hazardous areas. These changes were pushed through by our Council despite repeated written objections by the NSW Rural Fire Service (that’s right, the same agency that actually fights fires and knows quite a bit about their risks) over several years. The planning instrument by which these extremely hazardous changes were recently made is known as the Eurobodalla Rural Lands Planning Proposal (ERLPP).

But, in the light of the recent bushfires, isn’t it time to review that? How did our rural blocks fare? Did the electricity remain on to power pumps? Were communications lost? What are people using for water in these non-serviced areas? Did people Stay and Defend, or were they forced to flee, clogging narrow roads and leaving their properties unprotected. Were their properties well prepared or did they leave adjacent properties more at risk? Were emergency services able to help defend them, or were they left to burn while emergency services concentrated on the potentially savable? Were emergency service personnel put at greater and unnecessary risk in trying to save the unsavable?

And what of the future? Yes, this drought will end, and hopefully soon, but we have every reason to believe the world is not doing enough to counter climate overheating. Even if we stopped all emissions today, the next drought will come sooner than the current one, and will be deeper and broader in impact*. If your property survived Nature’s warning shot across our bows, it may not withstand the next salvo.

(*That’s not an argument against stopping emissions, it’s just a recognition of the fact that we’ve already pre-loaded the atmosphere with so much CO2 that it will take decades or more to be reabsorbed, assuming we stop land-clearing and get reafforestation going full tilt. If we don’t stop and start reversing emissions, the impacts will be greater still.)

It’s perfectly clear from our urban, suburban and rural fringe experience that we were unable to even protect them adequately. How many houses lost? Something like 450 at last count. We’ve suffered weeks of power outages and communication (landline and mobile) failures. (Indeed, let me pause to give praise to the only and most essential service that never wavered – the mains water supply, which at least here in Malua Bay, maintained excellent flow and pressure even despite the no-doubt heavy demands upon it as the fires struck.)

So, if we can’t protect the consolidated urban areas with their well-developed infrastructure, how can we be expected to protect little pockets of development down country lanes and up private roads, often on exposed ridges (the views are breathtaking, but so is the smoke) with flakey power, no town water, sometimes only one access point, and populated mostly by retired city folk in their senior years?

The ERLPP. Time for a rethink? Or do we plough ahead, and, when tragedy strikes, nervously await the Coroner’s findings?

Terry McGee, Malua Bay.

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