Academic journal article Agenda: A Journal of Policy Analysis and Reform

Management of the Coastal Zone in Byron Bay: The Neglect of Medium-Term Considerations

Academic journal article Agenda: A Journal of Policy Analysis and Reform

Management of the Coastal Zone in Byron Bay: The Neglect of Medium-Term Considerations

Article excerpt


This paper documents the history of coastal management in Byron Bay and its implication for the property rights of landowners and other stakeholders. It finds that, until recently, planning for an uncertain future in a warming climate has overshadowed more immediate issues. The NSW Government has recently signalled its intention to allow individual landowners the right to apply to protect their properties from erosive events, thereby removing the need for councils to invoke statewide sea-level-rise projections. But these proposed changes fail to address the medium-term (~40 years) problem, whilst promoting ad hoc coastal protection measures. This paper argues that medium-term engineering solutions, including beach nourishment to defend some residential areas, should not be ruled out a priori. Parts of the present coastline may well need to be abandoned as they become impractical and too expensive to protect, but it is argued that this time has not yet arrived.


Australia has one of the longest coastlines in the world (Thom and Short 2006) and the littoral zone is by Australian standards heavily populated, with 50 per cent of the nation's inhabitants living within seven kilometres of the coast (Chen and McAneney 2006). Despite the concentration of people, property and infrastructure along its coastline, and with the exception of some storm surge associated with Tropical Cyclone Yasi in 2011, Australia has experienced relatively few significant coastal-erosion incidents in recent decades. Nonetheless, management of the coastal zone is the source of considerable conflict between local politics, ideology and private property rights.

There is presently no coordinated planning or policy response to deal with the issue of coastal erosion in Australia. As Cooke et al. (2012) argue, rising sea levels and increased coastal populations will place continuing pressure on beaches, and an integrated approach to managing the coastal zone is called for. Those authors found only 130 beaches throughout Australia had been nourished (that is, subject to artificial replenishment) between 2001 and 2011 and that most of this occurred in response to specific extreme weather events. Given that the trajectory of global climate change in respect of severe weather remains uncertain (for example, Bender et al. 2010; and Crompton, Pielke Jr and McAneney 2011) and the extent of our coastline's exposure to extreme weather, the lack of focus on medium-term engineering solutions is surprising.

As a case study to illustrate the problem, we consider the town of Byron Bay. Byron Bay is one of several locations along the northern New South Wales and southeast Queensland coasts to have been classified as beach 'erosion hotspots' (Australian Government 2009). This paper documents the history of the legislative events and proposed changes to the Coastal Protection Act (CPA) in NSW, its implications for homeowners and local government, and the legal disputes that have arisen in Byron Bay.

The Byron Bay Background

The Byron shire currently has 29 000 residents, 9000 of whom live in the 'Bay' itself. The main industry is tourism, with over 1.76 million visitors a year, spending between them some $382 million and providing employment to 3124 people (Byron Shire Council 2012). Once a fishing port and whaling station - in 1954 one-fifth of the town was employed by the fishing industry2 - Byron Bay now attracts those seeking a bohemian lifestyle as well as wealthy escapees from the major cities. Today the town finds itself at the centre of a battle between these two groups, embroiled in a legal dispute concerning private property rights and coastal erosion. It is fast becoming an expensive brawl.

Coastal erosion impacts on infrastructure are no stranger to the Bay. In 1928 a new jetty was built to replace the original (built in 1888), which had been damaged by heavy seas. The rebuilt jetty was in turn damaged in 1948 and its replacement mostly lost in 1954 in heavy seas generated by Tropical Cyclone (TC) 137 (Roche et al. …

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