In a win for Byron Bay beachgoers, the NSW Land and Environment Court has rejected an appeal from three coastal property owners to repair failing seawalls on Belongil Beach with 900 tonnes of rock on the grounds that the finished product would restrict public access and use of the beach.
The ruling against the three wealthy property owners, Brisbane-based developer John James, former Seek director Robert Watson and businessman Geoffrey Tauber, who is based in Melbourne.
The decision by Justice Brian Preston, handed down in late December, is the latest decision in a drawn-out struggle to protect the area’s waterfront properties from sea erosion.
The appeal case began after the NSW Transitional Coastal Panel refused the initial application lodged by the three property owners in January 2017 to fortify the existing walls in front of their seaside properties.
The proposal amounted to 900 tonnes of additional rock that would occupy 120 metres of beach in total.
The application was knocked back by the panel for a number of reasons, including uncertainty surrounding the long-term performance of the proposed works and its potential detrimental impacts to the coastal foreshore, as well as the fact that it might “unreasonably limit public access to the beach.”
The panel also stated that that the proposed works were not in the public interest and approval of them would set a precedent for further seawall construction in the area to protect private properties.
“The outcome would be a continuous length of seawalls and other coastal protection works along Belongil Beach, which would be an undesirable and objectionable outcome.”
Property owners lodged the application on the basis that the additions were “repairs” to the existing rock walls, which were installed in an “uncontrolled” fashion in response to an emergency erosion event and are deemed illegal by the local council, and that there would be no changes to public access or use of the beach.
In the development application, they further argued that the existing walls were in a state of disrepair that they were likely compromising public safety.
Although in the appeal case Justice Preston recognised that public safety could be improved with some repairs to the seawalls, he ultimately agreed with the panel and deemed the scale of the landowner’s proposed changes unsatisfactory.
“…by reason of their size and extent, the resultant repaired seawalls in front of each of the land owners’ properties will result in the alienation of significant parts of the public land of the beach and a concomitant limiting, impeding or diminishing of public access to and use of the beach.”
As well as preventing access to the beach for the public, especially at high tide, Justice Preston was concerned that the works would endanger people walking along the beach because they would find it difficult to escape to safety in unfavourable weather conditions and large swells.
He also wrote in his decision that the landowners were “seeking to take advantage of unlawful existing works and use” with their claim that the repaired sea walls will not result in any additional limiting, impeding or diminishing of public access to or use of the beach beyond the obstruction caused by the existing seawalls.