Sean Doherty: Coastal Estates in the Time of Corona

9 May 2020 5 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

With social distancing laws in place, protesters found novel ways to demonstrate against development at Manyana: Protest Yoga.

With social distancing laws in place, protesters found novel ways to demonstrate against development at Manyana: Protest Yoga.

COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY

While the rest of us have had our lives put on hold by corona, escaping house arrest for two essential surfs a day, the wheels of progress have kept turning.

“Under corona cover” has become a term used for publicly unpopular decisions and developments being given the green light while the public has been distracted with virus life and surfing twice a day. In politics it’s referred to as “taking out the trash” and generally happens late on a Friday afternoon or late in the day on Christmas Eve. As people struggle with corona-reality, it’s now late Friday afternoon every day of the week. Certainly, approvals for new fossil fuel developments haven’t been slowed by the virus. Quite the opposite.

Closer to home though, in coastal towns around the country, jumbo-sized residential developments have bravely forged ahead in these most challenging times. In just the past week, two developments in iconic coastal towns have pushed ahead regardless… although they’ve hardly done so unnoticed.

Back on December 31 last year, the Currowan fire roared through bushland adjacent to the South Coast towns of Bendalong, Manyana and Conjola. The fires tore through the night on New Year’s Eve. Bendy and Manyana survived by the skin of their teeth. Conjola wasn’t so lucky. 

One of the few silver linings to the Black Summer has been these small towns becoming closer as a result. They’ve pulled together and rallied. Narrawallee local Brett Burcher, who’d watched the Conjola fire burning on New Year’s Eve from his yard, in the latest Surfing World summed up the feeling of locals in the aftermath. “It was absolutely fucked, but on the other hand it was like, wow, this is a powerful place and it made you appreciate living here and be proud to be from this area.”

The sense of community has grown even stronger in the months since as South Coast locals have gotten on with life, rebuilding and restoring habitats, despite the fact that the corona virus has seen the bushfires largely forgotten by the rest of the country.

When the Currowan fire burned through Conjola National Park and into the town of Manyana, it got as far as the bushland pegged out to become Manyana Beach Estate. While the DA for the estate was approved way back in 2007, the block has remained undeveloped in the years since. Late last year however, before the fires, Bankstown developer Ozy Homes had been given approval to clear 70 hectares bordering Curvers Drive and Inyadda Drive for stage one of the estate. There were another four stages coming after that, doubling the size of a town that has a permanent population of just 500 people. The Managing Director of Ozy Homes, Ghazi Sangari, also has an approval to build a shopping centre in Manyana. 

The pre-Christmas clearing, however, didn’t happen, and after the fires those 70 hectares left became the last green corridor surrounding the town. Everything beyond it was blackened. The unburnt parcel had become a wildlife refuge for critters like greater gliders who’d moved into town after the national park had burned out.

Last week, Ozy Homes announced the scheduled clearing would begin on May 7. The land had survived the worst fires the Australian coast had ever seen, and the fact it was now due to be flattened by a developer defied belief. As you might imagine, locals fumed. They immediately formed a campaign group, “Manyana Matters” and took up residence on the side of the road next to the threatened bushland, protesting at a safe 1.5m social distance from each other and even conducting protest yoga sessions.

The issue was one of basic respect. A big city developer rolling into a small town still reeling psychologically to bulldoze untouched forest for a development nobody in town wants. The timing stunk. The locals had long resigned themselves to this estate going ahead, but now? Seriously? It got worse. Locals soon discovered the developers had been using an image of Russ Bierke – one of the area’s favourite surfing sons – to sell the estate on their website without his knowledge.

As the campaign went social this week and landed in the national media the developer went to ground. The optics were bad for them in the court of public opinion. Even before the fires the area was a conservation stronghold with a strong and progressive community that’s only become stronger post-fires. They were not a group you’d want to pick a fight with on a national stage. The locals certainly started as sentimental favourites, but were also media savvy and connected in the surf world. The local groups involved in saving Manyana had been big supporters of the Bight campaign last year, and as soon as the call went out on social media all those Bight campaigners from around the country threw in their support. The social media manager at Ozy Homes has had a tough week.

Then, early yesterday, a win.

After intervention from local and state politicians, Ozy Homes announced they were suspending the work for at least two weeks. While there’s still a sense of inevitability about the estate being razed at some point – the DA and approvals all still stand – there were now glimmers of hope about negotiating a “like-for-like” land swap deal to protect that Manyana parcel permanently. There’ll be lawyers and a bucket of public money involved if this is going to happen, but for the people of Manyana the week ends with far more hope than it started.

Further north, meanwhile, the controversial West Byron development has crawled out of the West Byron flood plain for one more round. 

Two development groups have planned a 1000-plus lot suburb on the floodplain opposite the Byron industrial estate off Ewingsdale Road. It’s been the site of a running battle between the Byron Residents Group and developers for years now, the latest chapter seeing one of the developers – a group of local landowners – headed to the Land and Environment Court. The development has already been rejected by the NSW Premier, Byron Shire and the Joint Regional Planning Panel… let alone Byron locals who submitted over 5000 submissions in opposition.

The fact the development has even got this far is remarkable. West Byron would be built on the Ewingsdale floodplain and would require a million cubic metres of fill to rise above it. The overflow created would end up in Belongil Creek, taking stormwater run-off with it. It’s also in the middle of a koala habitat, but maybe the craziest aspect is the extra 14,000 car trips it’s going to add every day to Ewingsdale Road, which is already a car park for most of the year. 

Despite all of this and the almost unanimous public opposition, on the day they opened the new Ewingsdale Road roundabout last year to everyone’s surprise there was a spur coming off it headed in the direction of the adjacent farmland. At that point locals started putting two and two together and realised there were decisions being made they knew nothing about. 


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