The old family shack and the sea

The changing face of seaside living has made coastal land management a trickier proposition and the need for solutions more urgent than ever. [28 January 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Erosion at Roches Beach in southern Tasmania

With the dinghy pulled up on the beach a stone’s throw away, Wendy serves the kids fresh flathead from the barbecue while Bruce wanders into the ramshackle holiday home to replenish the tinny supply from the hand-me-down fridge.

Countless urban Australians have enjoyed the beachside shack and the wonderful lifestyle that went with it. When Donald Horne wrote his 1964 classic The Lucky Country, life at the beach was surely uppermost in his mind.

But the cheap holiday at the old shack is getting to be a fading memory. With a diminishing middle class, a rising income gap between rich and poor, and in recent times foreign buyers with lots of cash, the second home on the coast is becoming the domain of the wealthy.

A typical beachside summer today is as likely to include a cabin cruiser tied up in the canal, with pate, a crayfish and a vintage white enjoyed in the air-conditioned comfort of a home that’s anything but cheap.

There’s a lot of money tied up in coastal land, which goes some way to explaining why in these times of global warming, rising seas and changing weather patterns the business of running Australia’s coastal municipalities is so much more complicated than it used to be.

We got some insights into goings-on around coastal real estate in a fascinating hearing last month in the NSW land and environment court, which ruled in favour of a couple who had sought building approval from the Great Lakes Council on their block at Jimmys Beach, near Newcastle.

The council had allowed the couple to build on the erosion-prone coast on condition that in 20 years’ time they pay for an assessment of whether or not the house was still safe from erosion. A negative conclusion would mean they would have to demolish their home.

The court’s main sticking point was that the appellants, having bought their block in good faith and after due diligence, were confronted after the event with the stipulation about future coastal erosion.

The Jimmys Beach story really began nearly four years ago, when the NSW Labor government set up a coastal planning framework to guide councils and communities in working out suitable precautions against the risk of coastal erosion.

The laws had been based on determinations by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which in its latest report says sea level rise is accelerating and that by 2100 oceans around the world will be higher by at least 0.26 m and possibly by nearly a metre.

But last year the state’s Liberal-National government scrapped the laws, saying they didn’t take adequate account of varying local conditions and that anyway the IPCC projections were uncertain. It wants to develop coastal hazard policies “in partnership” with local councils.

Repeal of the NSW coastal measures followed a campaign by coastal landowners who said the value of their properties had crashed because the law had required erosion risk levels to be noted on planning certificates. They said their beaches were growing, not eroding.

As a proportion of its area, Tasmania has more coastline than any other Australian state. All but four of our 29 local governments must in varying degrees address the question of rising seas and eroding shores. The more expensive the land that’s involved, the harder that will be.

Clarence, which takes in many hectares of low-lying land from the Derwent estuary to Pittwater, recognised the vulnerability of its coasts some years ago when it undertook a comprehensive coastal planning study and appointed a scientist, Fred Pribac, to be its climate change officer.

It also sought help from Clive Attwater, a Tasmanian consultant with SGS Economics and Planning, in negotiating the potentially explosive mix of a rising threat from the ocean and anxious property owners understandably concerned to protect their considerable investments.

Councils’ fear of future litigation for property loss is real. The pockets of some waterfront home-owners are deep enough to fund protracted court hearings and send a council to the wall. Hence the risk-averse position taken by the Great Lakes Council in the Jimmys Beach case.

Attwater, who has worked with several Tasmanian councils, prefers a consultative approach whereby coastal communities determine which developments can or can’t be protected and serviced at reasonable cost over coming decades, given expected sea level rises.

Until such “adaptation pathways” are established, councils are advised to approve developments subject to their doing whatever is necessary, such as elevating buildings and using deep piles, to meet whatever inundation or erosion hazards are likely to occur over their lifetime.

That’s a tricky question. The allowance made by an administration for future sea level rise tends to be based on precautionary interpretations of what the IPCC has projected, but many coastal property owners and developers believe the IPCC exaggerates, so they reject the allowance based on it.

This is where it pays to have on hand someone like John Hunter, a Hobart-based oceanographer with decades of sea level research under his belt. The formula for his “Hunter allowance” applies future sea level estimates and an uncertainty factor to current tidal and storm-surge statistics.

The novel aspect of Hunter’s formula is that it’s based not out in the distant future but on what’s now happening. So there’s no presumed increase in frequency of flooding events (though this is likely to happen); just an assumption that today’s frequency rate will continue.

The method can’t reasonably be criticised by developers, yet it comes up with pretty much the same sea levels as the older method. For Tasmania, allowances are currently 0.2 m for the period to 2050 and 0.8 m out to 2100.

State and national governments can’t afford to vacate this field as NSW did. The last thing the issue needs is the kind of local squabbling that derailed the Great Lakes coastal strategy.

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