SOUTH Gippsland Shire Council is facing a high tide of community opposition as it contemplates changes to the management of the seawalls which stretch for 25 kilometres or so across the Corner Inlet coastal flats.
The Corner Inlet Drainage Area Advisory Committee, a Section 86 Advisory Committee, currently provides advice on maintenance of the seawalls, which wind their way along the contours of the land – roughly at the high tide mark – in five earth sections from Agnes to Foster, protecting around 17,000 hectares of rural and residential land.
The seawalls were constructed between 1970 and 1974. Landholders abutting Corner Inlet raised the need for them back in early 1961 when exceptionally high tides led to severe flooding of their land. Maintenance of the walls, which have the dual purpose of providing protection from inundation from the sea and draining water back to the sea, is funded by special charges levied on owners in the area.
Largely grass-covered, the seawalls, which vary in height from 1.5 to 2 metres, are partly on 99 private properties owned by 31 landholders and partly on Crown land managed by the Department of Sustainability and Environment. However, they provide protection for not just these but also surrounding low lying properties – 172 in total, with 85 landholders between them.
Council is keen to minimise its risk exposure for infrastructure such as the seawalls which it does not own. Its potential liability as a coastal council in the face of climate change has heightened its concerns.
However, if Council hoped it would be easy to wipe its hands entirely of responsibility for the seawalls those hopes have been dashed.
The management of the seawalls was on the agenda of the August meeting of Council, but pressure from local landowners encouraged Council to vote for a delay in making a decision. They argued that there had been insufficient time to contact all the relevant landowners – and they were reliant on Council, as the keeper of the complete list of landowners, to do this. The secretary of the Section 86 committee, Carmel Van Kuyk, asked Council to defer its decision until all the stakeholders had been consulted and the legal implications grasped.
The number of affected landowners has grown significantly in recent years since some of the land has been subdivided. Many of them are weekenders with only small blocks and Ms Van Kuyk and her fellow committee members said it was only fair that they all be consulted about a decision with ramifications for each one of them.
Since that August Council meeting all affected landholders have, according to the shire’s manager of governance services, Luke Anthony, been advised in writing of Council’s deliberations. They were also told of a public forum scheduled for September 26. As reported in last week’s Mirror, a dozen or so landowners attended the forum and many voiced their opposition in no uncertain terms to Council’s plans for the seawalls.
Council’s preferred option of the four options proposed by a report into the matter is to assist affected landowners to establish an independent Incorporated Association under the Incorporations Association Act 1981 and establish a funding scheme through a Special Charge to maintain the seawalls.
The landowners, however, are worried that they will not get insurance if they do not have the backing of the shire which a Section 86 committee provides.
Ms Van Kuyk said that the landowners would be seeking legal advice before they reach any decision.
Last week she and a couple of other landholders – her son Allen Van Kuyk and fellow committee member Bruce Best – issued an invitation to South Gippsland’s shire councillors to inspect the seawalls. Councillors Mohya Davies and Kieran Kennedy took up the offer and met at Toora last Thursday for what proved to be a windswept tour – as the accompanying photo indicates!
“This is a significant piece of infrastructure and there are no easy answers,” acknowledged Cr Davis.
There will be a further opportunity to put forward views on how best to manage the seawalls at Public Presentation sessions scheduled for October 17 (a week before the Council meeting) and the morning of the Council Meeting on October 24. Carmel Van Kuyk has indicated that she and other affected landowners have every intention of seizing this opportunity to express their views. This issue clearly has a long way to run yet.