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The fallacy of 'Retreat' for Coastal Zone Management

By Roger Welch - posted Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The NSW state government has identified 19 coastal communities as ‘Coastal Hot Spots’. To the great concern of local communities, this designation was followed in 2010 by direction from the NSW State government that local councils quickly adopt Coastal Zone Management Plans (CZMP’s) requiring ‘retreats’ from coastal areas where properties are threatened by beach and dune erosion. In addition, the adoption by the NSW Parliament of the "Coastal Protection and other Legislation Amendment " (the ‘Sartor legislation’) in early 2011 further unsettled residents along the coastline where, understandably, these government measures are not acceptable to the many Australians who live, work, and vacation in these beautiful coastal areas.

The O’Farrell government has not yet declared its stand on this issue of mandated ‘retreats’ which affects not only the thousands of property owners who may be forced to abandon their homes, but also entire communities and potentially billions of dollars worth of property.

Those in state government subservient to an unwavering climate change ideology have apparently decided that on the basis of projections of sea level rise, coastal areas are doomed to inundation, and should not be protected. Councils have been instructed to re-write their Coastal Management Plans to embody ‘retreats’. Furthermore, this direction had been well telegraphed for several years previously, thus giving Councils carte blanche to ignore or re-write their ratified CZMP’s. These ‘old’ CZMP’s have historically included measures for protection of coastal property, and in some cases "buy back" of properties affected by dune erosion when they came within 20 metres of dune escarpment.


Effectively the climate change ideology when translated from State to Local government has resulted in inactivity and neglect of property protection along the beaches of coastal NSW during the decade plus term of the Labour government. At Taree Old Bar, after years of neglecting possible measures for their protection, houses undermined by dune erosion were condemned. Their owners were charged for removal costs. The recent ‘Sartor legislation’ compounded the effects of these new Council plans on all property owners within kilometres of coastal water, whether sea, estuary, river, or stream in NSW, and offered no protection to individual property owners.

The idea of ‘retreat’ has been around for a while. It forms part of the building code in coastal Byron Shire, for example. Houses within a described line of coastal inundation must be built to a code that specifies they are demountable in the case of flooding and can be carted away; although no one can say where the trucks and manpower will come from in an emergency, or how the capacity of the roads will be able to handle whole suburbs leaving town at the same time in the height of a storm. ‘Retreat’ has been a flawed concept from the start, but the mythology has been embraced and enshrined in building codes.

It is determined (guestimated) with reference to hypothetical lines in the sand, where inundation will occur over 25 year, 50 year, and 100 year time frames. In some communities, the 25-year line has already been breached. The new ‘retreat’ policy not only includes past building codes, but goes further and encompasses existing properties which are not demountable, having been built years before current building codes were invented. These properties can be torn down and their owners will have no recompense.

Low lying coastal communities are built on sand which, perhaps dating back to the time of Gondwanaland, has its origins from the southern coastline of Terra Nullius. Over eons of time, there has been a northward flow of silica sand along the NSW and Queensland coasts. This sand banks up eventually to form Fraser Island. Human-made barriers such as rock walls to protect bars disrupt the flow of sand, and also cause sand to be deposited within rivers where it is bottled up by narrow entrances. The northward flow of sand continues and there is accelerated erosion of beaches on the north side of bars, a direct consequence of human interference to coastal sand ecology. This is seen at Wooli where the Wooli-Wooli River is silting up, and dunes north of the seaway are eroding.

Why the coastal areas have been singled out for ‘retreat’ in NSW is not clear. In Queensland, local councils quietly get on with the job, spend money and do works to protect their coastline. Even on a stringent budget of $1.8 million annually, the Gold Coast manages up to three storm erosion events, and provides for regular maintenance of the beach, well regarded as a vital business amenity. The introduction of sand bypass at the Tweed River has successfully resulted in the re-building of Kirra beach and has created a sand bank for northward dispersion. Mooloolaba is a leader in coastal beach management recognising the value of the beach to its economy from tourism.

These councils have wisely concentrated their precious dollars on action, not on wasteful inaction, flawed studies, and polemics. Unfortunately, these progressive measures stand to change with new federal government measures also formalising ‘retreats’. As recent severe storms in Queensland have demonstrated, hot spots are also occurring in non-coastal areas. Severe damage during storm impacts last Christmas in Queensland occurred many kilometres inland. In the Clarence Valley, more money has been spent on dykes, and repairs following inland flooding than has ever been spent on conserving the beach at Wooli. Our whole continent is at risk from natural disasters.


Retreat is not part of the Australian ethos. We changed the course of the war in the Pacific when our soldiers did not retreat from our defensive lines at Milne Bay. We do not retreat from vaccinating our children to protect them from crippling diseases. Retreat, with its controversies, now creates class divisions and a decidedly un-Australian social divide more typical of the activities of the Socialists of a former era. The ‘have nots’ in power, to satisfy the monster of their ideology, legislate to deprive the ‘haves’ of their property.

Would we sacrifice our core social equity to that of a minority who believe they can decide who can stay and who must go? Do we condemn financially average communities like Wooli in favour of rich communities like the Gold Coast? Do we close a whole coastal community in order to save the Coolangatta Airport, itself precariously built on a coastal flood plain not far above sea level? What about the old pensioners in Wooli who now cannot sell their houses to fund nursing home care in Grafton?

Just before the Keneally government went into the 2010 Christmas recess, the Byron Shire Council attempted to force through adoption of its new retreat-focussed CZMP. Over 800 objections were lodged. Council officers advised that the proposed plan was flawed and it should be recalled from the Minister. The Council backed down and withdrew the plan. No doubt this about face was a reaction to legal action from residents who understand the need to protect Belongil Beach. At Byron Bay, once the ocean sweeps through Belongil Beach it would next cut off power, road, and rail services to the town; and as seawater pours into Johnson Street, most of the CBD would be flooded.

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About the Author

Dr Roger Welch is an ophthalmic surgeon with an interest in underwater photography. He lives on the Gold Coast and owns a beachfront property at Woolli.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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