Elaine Pearce, a retiree and owner of beachfront units, is fighting to save her retirement dream from erosion caused by the sea. Photo: Shane Chalker
Marian Wilkinson, Environment EditorJune 13, 2009
OWNERS of beachfront homes will get little protection or compensation from the State Government if their properties are threatened by rising sea levels caused by climate change or coastal erosion, under a plan in the course of being developed.
Anger is mounting among councils and coastal communities that the Government priority will be to protect public works and public safety, creating the prospect of lengthy legal battles between councils and beachfront residents.
The Minister for Climate Change, Carmel Tebbutt, has outlined her views in a letter to the Mayor of Taree, Paul Hogan, who is under pressure from residents of Old Bar beach, on the Mid-North Coast, where properties are already threatened by natural erosion.
Signalling the scale of future problems along the coastline from rising sea levels, Ms Tebbutt told Cr Hogan the Government would give priority to protecting public works and public safety, not private property.
"Given the expected magnitude of requests for funding, government financial assistance to councils is unlikely to extend to protecting or purchasing all properties at risk from coastal hazards and sea-level rise," Ms Tebbutt said.
A senior official in her department, Simon Smith, bluntly told a federal parliamentary committee recently: "I do not think that many people have realised how significant it is and how much valuable land and property is going to be affected."
He also said: "The state's view is that the risk to a property from sea-level rise lies with the property owner, public or private - or, whoever owns the land takes the risk. They gain the benefit of proximity to the ocean and they bear the risk of proximity to the ocean."
The NSW plan is being developed as scientists and councils warn that sea-level rise from climate change will greatly increase the number of beachfront homes at risk of inundation in coming decades, affecting some of the most expensive property in the country.
Geoff Withycombe, of the Sydney Coastal Councils Group, said: "Coastal property values at present do not reflect their potential risk." His organisation has has warned of a "black cloud of liability" hanging over councils.
Yesterday some of Australia's leading Antarctic climate scientists delivered a fresh warning to the Federal Government that "sea-level rise with associated effects, such as increased frequency of severe storm surges, will be one of the greatest impacts of a warming world on human societies".
The NSW Government released a draft policy statement on sea-level rise in February but councils and coastal property owners are only now realising its implications for beachfront properties.
The policy is based on scientific advice that sea levels are expected to rise up to 0.4 metres by 2050 and up to 0.9 metres by 2100.
Each centimetre of sea-level rise is expected to cause, on average, a metre of erosion along vulnerable coastlines. Sydney coastal councils were warned this week that the frequency of coastal flooding would increase by a factor of 300 if sea levels rose by half a metre.
The policy will not be released until September. But residents with properties already threatened by natural or man-made erosion are pressing councils to protect their homes now.
This week Byron Shire Council was in the Land and Environment Court attempting to prevent a beachfront resident erecting a rock wall to protect his home from erosion allegedly caused by early engineering works.
The Mayor, Jan Barham, fears residents at risk from sea-level rise caused by climate change will sue councils unless the Government changes its plan.
Coastal life's tide turmoil
Beachfront residents from Old Bar on the Mid-North Coast are likely to become an acid test of how local and state governments deal with rising sea levels.
Elaine Pearce's unit is under threat from natural coastal erosion, but by 2050 scientists are warning many more beachfront homes around the country could face similar risks as climate change speeds up sea-level rise, erosion and inundation.
Mrs Pearce wrote to the Greater Taree City Council last month when the beach lost another 2.5 metres of dunes in recent storms.
Since 2005 the nearby dunes have been eroding at a rate of 7.5 metres a year and residents want the council to put sand-bagged barriers in place.
But councils and residents are being warned the State Government's priority will be protecting public works and public safety, not homes.
"It's like Nero fiddling while Rome burns," Mrs Pearce said.