They never gave up the fight


It is just a year since the community of Ocean Shores lost the battle to be heard on the Pacific Highway upgrade from the Brunswick River to Yelgun.

The model of the highway now on display at the council offices in Mullumbimby shows that by and large, the RTA's preferred route is the one that will be built, despite the claim that modifications were made in response to community concerns.

What modifications there have been are regarded as minor by the community which fought so hard for so many years to have a well substantiated point of view acknowledged.

The highway battle was one that embraced environmental, historical, social, noise and safety concerns to a high degree.

Residents who spoke for the action group were dedicated to communicating the facts and fears of residents.

They worked harder and more passionately than any bureaucrat on the project, and there was no sick pay or stress leave when one by one, they were used up, burned out for the cause.

How did the community consultation process evolve and who were these passionate advocates?

The process of community consultation began in November 1996. Interested groups were contacted by the project manager (Sinclair Knight Merz who were commissioned by the RTA to select the route and to undertake the environmental impact assess- ment).

A number of Progress Associations were formed to deal with the matter, and have since lapsed. This major piece of infrastructure would see some families relocated, some businesses close, and many parts of Ocean Shores and Brunswick Heads townships affected.

The serious and conscientious community response to the invitation was well based and had the support of credible professionals in the many technical fields traversed by this complex project.

Concerns for the Brunswick Heads Nature Reserve, the ecology of the river and the social consequences for the Ocean Shores community were high on the list in the early days.

These matters have continued to dominate, but with the passage of time, other things have emerged. Problems of noise, increased traffic close to the Ocean Shores township, the extreme value of the botany and the ecology of the Nature Reserve, and the discovery of a major Aboriginal archaeological site were added to the list.

In March 1999, the News reported council's refusal of the RTA's application for a new bridge and associated highway upgrade.

Grounds for refusal includ- ed concerns that the public consultation process may have been flawed, that the project was not shown to be in the public interest, that it was not demonstrated as being the best option in economic, social or ecological terms, that insufficient compensation was being offered for the wetlands lost and that the proposal was in contravention of the NSW Coastal Policy in regard to protection of fisheries and oyster breeding grounds.

Further studies were done, more community meetings were held and the project was re-submitted to council in September 1999.

This time, approval valid for a period of two years was given, subject to compliance conditions. The consent lapsed. Denise Greenaway was another of the visible advocates. She took a model of the highway into parliament house and surprised a lot of people with her candour and her grasp of the issues.

Plans for the bridge were reviewed as a result of community concerns and new design options went on display in November 2002. Plans were submitted to council for a modified design for the section from south of the Brunswick River to north of Rajah Road.

While some sections of the community are still not con- vinced by the RTA's arguments, and the fate of middens and possible burial sites remain in doubt even before they have been studied, other sections of the community urged for a speedy resolution to the debate. They cite safety issues in the face of increased use of the highway, including B-double trucks, as their major worry.

Campaigners for a highway west of the preferred route began their efforts with high hopes of being an authentic part of the process.

In June 27 1997, the News reported on the public meetings taking place. Ocean Shores resident Brian O'Neill used RTA information to do the sums and couldn't get the RTA's answers.

After thorough research, he reported to a meeting of Progress Associations from Brunswick Heads, South Golden Beach, New Brighton and North Ocean Shores, the Recreational and Commercial Fisheries Association, the Ocean Shores Urban Association (now the Ocean Shores Community Association), and the No Freeways Coalition.

They returned with support for a route west of the RTA's pre- ferred route. By October the then Minister had thrown out that community choice amidst accusations that the RTA never looked seriously at the community option.

More recently, the National Parks and Wildlife Service has been strangely quiet on the importance of Aboriginal archaeological sites found in the pathway of the preferred route.

The Heron report delivered late in 2002 presented evidence that significant Aboriginal heritage sites, middens, occupation sites and possible burial depressions revealing stone artefacts over a wide area, would be directly affected by the RTA's preferred route, and mitigation efforts unlikely to save them.

The NSW Heritage Act (1977) provides for protection of places of significance to Aboriginal people until such time as they can be made an Aboriginal Place under the National Parks and Wildlife Act.

There was no announcement that such protection has been invoked.

The opportunity that appeared to be offered when Byron Shire Council decided to ask the Ministers to meet with community campaigners was a welcome one.

Susan Hayward, speaking for the Highway Action Coalition told the News (May 29, 2003) that having the community consult with the minister is what should have happened in the first place.

That was not to be. In July 8 2003 the Highway Action Coalition requested Councillors to consider the use of a charrette, a little-used form of dispute resolution, which provides a high level of community consultation involving community representatives working closely with bureaucrats, politicians and technical experts.

This was yet one final mechanism to enlist in the community cause. The attempt failed.

The recommendation accepted by council was that three councillors (Mangleson, Heilpern and Staples) be delegated the authority to determine the DA in a negotiated settlement with the RTA and the Department of Infrastructure Planning and Natural Resources.

In the end, the application was determined by the Minister who turned away a community delegation at that time led by Ri Fraser, the last of the resident advocates.

Back in 1997, at the beginning of the campaign, Brian O'Neill was quoted in the News:

"With community support we stand a far better chance of having this freeway where we want it and not where the RTA want it."

Mr O'Neill and others were later to come to the conclusion that the RTA had made their decision and "presented information to lead to the (RTA's) desired outcome."

It is no fault of the campaigners the fight was lost.

Other parts of the highway upgrade are being planned and the community consultation process continues, now involving the Bangalow and Newrybar communities.

As they begin their advocacy for their rights with the RTA, they might do well to look at the recent past and the lessons that were learned by the people of Ocean Shores who tried unsuccessfully to do just that.

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