Down Byron Bay way the stresses of development are starting to show. They have been visible these past ten years, but now it is approaching crunch time, the period in which determined action will become imperative.
Development has been the big issue in Byron Shire ever since the campaigns against sand mining sparked the nascent environment movement of the 1970s. Growing with that movement and feeding on local issues of coastal development have been the careers of local lobbyists and Green politicians.
Ian Cohen, the sometimes-vocal Green politician now occupying a seat in the state Upper House, is perhaps the best-known local boy made good. John Corkill, once spokesman for Lismore's Big Scrub Environment Centre, became the environment movement's chief lobbyist in the region rather than follow Cohen into politics.
Cohen is an interesting and fearless character whose life has been motivated by his fight to protect the natural environment. He moved into the rainforest atop the escarpment of the Broken Head Nature Reserve to protect the reserve from development. That saw the start of the Serendipity community, a scattering of huts around a community house on what must now be valuable real estate.
Tall, powerfully built and with a loud voice when necessary, his bellicosity and hard edge seem to have ameliorated during his Parliamentary career. Well known locally, Cohen contested a number of local government elections without success before gaining the Upper House seat for The Greens. There is no denying that he represents a sizable body of opinion in Byron Shire and beyond.
Easy going with his friends, Cohen has been a sometimes opinionated and abrasive character. There is the story, some years old now and perhaps true, of how he saw local surfing identity, Rusty Miller, standing by his broken down car on the side of the road. Cohen pulled his old truck over, but not to help Rusty. As the story goes, Cohen got out and abused Miller for supporting a development at Seven Mile Beach, got back into his truck and drove on.
Cohen is no longer directly involved in the Byron political scene but the development issues he built his career on are still there, manifesting like spectres every few years. Although an artefact of the 1990s, still fresh in local memory is the campaign against Club Med's attempt to move into Byron. That split the town, a split exacerbated by the shortage of employment opportunity that has plagued the region ever since people started to flow in during the 1970s. Club Med's was a similar fate to that of Kurt Shaffer's development for Seven Mile Beach. Ostensibly an educational facility near the beach, local Greens claimed the development was nothing more than a thinly veiled tourist facility. The reality was never tested because Shaffer was forced to relocate as a result of the collapse of the 'White Shoe Brigade's' fortunes.
That was the past. The present is less one of fighting off rampant developers than dealing with the infrastructure stresses brought by the numbers coming into the region. That the masses are on their way has been confirmed by the 2002 Census and by the research of demographer, Bernard Salt (The Salt Report).
Sewage is one of the more serious challenges Byron Council faces. With insufficient funds for a new treatment plant, council has declared a moratorium on new housing releases. But more than the availability of funding will impact on this issue even if funds eventually become available.
The local population is quite politicised in an environmental sense, so the location and technology employed in any future sewage treatment works will be closely scrutinised, analysed, argued and, if need be, contested. An indicator of how infrastructure projects become controversial was Lismore Council's withdrawal of plans for a sewage treatment plant near the village of Clunes at the end of September this year. Locals claimed they had been kept in the dark about the plans and only discovered them by chance. There followed a vigorous debate in the pages of local newspapers, the Northern Star and Northern Rivers Echo, and council's withdrawal.
Like other parts of the state, the region covered by Byron, Ballina and Lismore councils is suffering water shortages and councils have introduced restrictions on use. This is yet another challenge in a region undergoing population growth. A belated and partial answer will come next October when the NSW Building Sustainability Index, introduced in the Sydney, Hunter, Illawarra region last July, becomes law in the Northern Rivers region and across the state. Not only does the index require a minimal energy performance of new buildings and major renovations, minimal standards of water efficiency are mandated before a certificate will be issued. Without a certificate, no development application can be lodged with local government. By itself, the index will not solve the region's water shortage, only substantial rainfall will.
The thousands of backpackers who flood into Byron add to pressure on the town's infrastructure. The industry that has been developed around backpack tourism based on accommodation, transport and touring, has certainly brought in money and has been accepted by locals despite the large number of visitors. The number of accommodation establishments catering to backpackers suggests the scale of the potential impact on the region's services.