A king tide of coastal reform

Two weeks ago the NSW Government announced a package of reforms to coastal erosion management. While details won’t be released until this week’s coastal conference in Ballina, the good news is that the reforms will apparently formally recognise that governments are not responsible for protection works on private property in response to natural erosion or sea level rise associated with climate change. This is in line with a long-established principle of property law, which basically holds that if you purchase waterfront property, you are entitled to the benefits but also take the risks associated with your choice.

Coastal erosion will inevitably accelerate as a result of sea level rise and storm surges associated with climate change. It’s critical to establish that the public purse should not be used to support increasingly expensive and complex works, such as groynes, sandbagging and sand replenishment, to benefit a relatively small number of beachfront homeowners. (It may be a different story where works on public land are alleged to have increased erosion on nearby private property, as some Belongil Beach landowners are claiming.)

However, the state government’s reforms also have some troubling aspects. Allowing private landholders to carry out their own emergency and long-term protection works – with approval from Joint Regional Planning Panels, bypassing local councils – opens a can of worms that may prove problematic in the long term.

When one landowner installs sandbags, say, it inevitably increases the amount of sand washed away from neighbouring properties. In theory, landowners will be responsible for paying for any future beach nourishment or other works needed to minimise the impacts of their works on adjacent land.

But how far into the future? What happens if the cost becomes prohibitive and the owner cries poor? What legal mechanism will be used to enforce these agreements, given that restrictive covenants on property titles are notoriously difficult to enforce on subsequent buyers? And who is to pay for the related research, monitoring and enforcement – assuming the political will to do so remains in a decade, let alone a century?

The new policy also identifies 19 erosion “hot spots” along the NSW coast, including Belongil and Lennox Head, for which councils will be required to prepare coastal erosion emergency management plans by June 2010. But are these erosion hot spots or political hot spots? Half of them are in the densely populated coastline between Sydney and Newcastle. It is fair enough to address the problems faced by residents along these beaches, but this approach doesn’t suggest a comprehensive and sustainable response to a growing problem.

Think a century into the future. Even if sea level rise is no more than the maximum 90 centimetres planned for by the state government and Byron Council, by the rough yardstick used to guesstimate erosion this translates into a landward retreat of the shoreline of some 90 metres. If your house is, say, 50 metres from the erosion line now, by mid-century you are going to be living on a little island, spending an awful lot of money on protection and causing ever-increasing impacts on nearby land.

By the way, no scientist is predicting that sea level rise will stop at midnight on December 31, 2099. No level of government is thinking past that date. If recent data on icesheet melting is to be believed, and unless we reach a comprehensive and strong climate agreement in Copenhagen in December, 90cm looks like the absolute best we can hope for.

It is not only humans who are in the path of the advancing Pacific Ocean. Where building has been allowed on foredunes, lakefronts and wetlands, there isn’t much biodiversity already. Where there are reserves in which native plants and animals are currently protected, where are the plans for buffers, corridors and refuges to allow them a chance to retreat in the face of the new world we are creating?

Byron Council’s planned retreat policy, which was put in place not by the current Greens-dominated council but by the state government in 1988, is an innovative response to some of these issues. It may need fine-tuning. There may be a place for some publicly-funded hard structures to protect public assets and biodiversity from the worst impacts of climate change. And the issue is yet to be properly addressed of compensation or relocation assistance for people – not only wealthyhomeowners but the mortgage belt and battlers – who are forced to move away from coastal towns as a result of forces outside their control.

But the fundamental logic behind planned retreat is inescapable. We must plan to move further away from the coast as the sea level rises and storm surges increase in intensity, and the way we build should reflect the level of risk. The sooner we act, the less painful the process.

All the better if, when doing our planning, we can remember the needs of native plants and animals in the coastal zone, from humble but vital fungi and spinifex to the mighty python and sea eagle.

Mark Byrne is education officer at the Environmental Defender’s Office Northern Rivers. The EDO is holding a free public seminar on planned retreat, climate change and biodiversity in the SCU room at the Byron Community Centre from 6-8pm on Thursday, December 3. For more information, phone 1300 369 791. Please note that current litigation concerning protection works at Belongil Beach and the question of whether Byron Council is partially responsible for erosion there will NOT be addressed at this seminar.

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