Is It Too Late to Save Byron?

July 28th, 2022

This was the heading of a recent article in a housing industry publication. “Is It Too Late to Save Byron?” I have heard versions of this question many times over the years. It seems to come in waves, usually at a time when we are experiencing a growth spurt or facing challenging times. We are certainly going through one of those waves of change now.

The New Santa Barbara

The heading was provoked by a quote from the developer of West Byron, now called Harvest Estate. I posted the whole YouTube interview of Terry Agnew from Tower Holdings in a previous edition. It was highly shared as it was interesting to hear the views of someone like this. You can read the full article here.

Mr Agnew’s quotes are in italics: “Have you ever been to Santa Barbara? …well, that’s what you’re going to have here (in Byron Bay). Your hippies are gone and even your backpackers they’re going to go, and you’re going to have very wealthy people owning (all) this stuff. They’re going to want better restaurants, better coffee shops, and better houses. It’ll just keep going. All the peripheral areas will go as well and are already going … you can’t stop it.”

Two Camps

Can you stop it? That is the question. Bill Hislop, Muriel’s dad in the classic Aussie film Muriel’s Wedding said the same thing: “You can’t stop progress!” You also can’t stop people’s agitation over extreme and rapid changes happening to towns like Byron Bay. Property prices have doubled in two years, floods, fire, housing crisis and rental shortages. There must be something we or the council can do – right?

My sense is that progressive, left-leaning Byron residents have divided into two camps on this issue. The old guard is still saying Just Say No to everything. The idea is that we can slow it down – at least. The priority is to save as much of the environment as possible and no development trumps everything else.

The other camp is of the opinion that we can be proactive and choose development options that suit the region and create a diverse, multi-layered community. This option proposes that new development occurs on the communities’ terms and provides good civic infrastructure at the same time. It’s the old story of needing to say what it wants rather than just know what it does not want. If we do not do this we will end up with a mono-culture of the wealthy. Yes, much like Santa Barbara, Silicon Vally, Aspen, Monaco and a legion of other HNW (High Net Worth) enclaves.

Commuting Workers

The article goes on to say this:

Byron’s median house price has more than doubled during the pandemic hitting $3.09 million—significantly higher than most Sydney suburbs. It also recently has been ranked the top residential hotspot for the world’s ultra-wealthy and property prices are forecast to soar a further 30 to 35 per cent in the next five years. But with the well-heeled influx pumping up home prices and rents, key workers—including hospitality staff—have been pushed out, severely impacting the tourist town’s service economy.

This statement is not sensationalising the facts. There are plenty of places where this is already happening and many are asking if we want this to happen here. Interestingly, one person asking is the current mayor, Michael Lyon.

“We’re past the tipping point,” Byron Shire mayor Michael Lyon says. “It’s a full-blown crisis … something has got to give. become Santa Barbara … end up with a smaller economy just servicing high-end clientele,” he says without hesitation. The number of permanent residents will go down, a lot of businesses will close, schools will shut down, it’ll be bad for jobs, and it’ll be bad for the economy. Eventually, an equilibrium will be reached but it’ll be a really shit outcome. We just can’t let that happen. “

From Talk to Action

Michael’s comments are accurate but, as far as I can see, they are not being reported or discussed in any of the local media. In the article, he comes up with a few suggestions. He talks about the 90-day cap on Holiday Letting but admits that is not a silver bullet. Latest update on Byron’s Holiday Letting policy is here.

There is also the legislation that 20% of new developments need to be committed to affordable housing. This is a good strategy but the number of new major developments in the works is negligible. 20% of nothing much is not going to change anything.

The last Rural Settlement Strategy was started over 15 years ago so is not part of this policy. The two planned land releases from that (Alidenes Road and McAuley’s Lane) are still years away from turning a sod of dirt. West Byron (Terry Agnew’s Harvest Estate – see Is It Too Late to Save Byron?) was over 30 years in the planning process. There are half a dozen Community Title developments in the works, of 6-12 rural blocks each. One is online now – see Hot Property. But all of these are more of the same large lot residential home sites and do not deliver what is needed – medium-density family dwellings for key workers.

Unlocking More Land – key towards a save byron approach?

Crucial to the current council’s new housing strategy is getting the NSW government to unlock key corridors of so-called “regionally significant farmland” to accommodate new homes.

“We’re a highly constrained area and one of the reasons is because we’re one of the only places in the state that has this thing called regionally significant farmland mapping,” Lyon says.  “But at the moment a lot of it is not being utilised as farmland and just forms acres and acres of lifestyle properties so the designation is kind of irrelevant.  If we can get this regionally significant farmland mapping removed from key areas and somehow find room for another 5000 or 10,000 dwellings that’ll be huge. That’s all we’ll need to take care of future growth and current requirements. It’s not a lot.”  

This is a backflip for the council and the mayor. He has moved from Camp #1 as a Greens councillor to Camp #2 as mayor. But talking about a solution is still a long way from enacting it. He has not yet started the difficult task of bringing the community with him on this. You have no idea how many housing seminars and community meetings I have attended about this topic. Talk is cheap and this is a wicked problem that will require guts and determination and radical solutions.

Muriel’s dad, Bill Hislop was a corrupt councillor from the fictional town of Porpoise Spit, on the Gold Coast, and no one wants to go down that road. Is it too late to save Byron? It may be: even if we start now, it will be 5-10 years at least before anything happens on the ground. And we haven’t even started having the conversation yet. People need to think about what kind of Byron they want.

Related Articles

Is AirBNB really the problem?
The Byron Shire’s Housing Affordability Crisis
Residential Settlement Strategy

4 Replies to “Is It Too Late to Save Byron?”

  1. The Mayor is on the right path. The difficulty is in getting us that live here to get rid of our “lock the gate” mentality, ie we are here but no one else can come.
    There are options. The current R5 Large Lot Residential areas (previously known as rural/residential are a starting point. They are mostly flood free, on higher ground, and many are wasting land. Maybe a horse here and almost negligible agricultural production.
    Some R5 areas that should be examined to provide for safe subdivision and additional housing are:
    Left Bank Road Mullumbimby
    The Manse Road
    Tyagarah Road
    Coopers Shoot

    1. Hi Ray, Yes, I agree this is an encouraging attitude from the mayor. I hammer on about it in the newsletter as I don’t think the community is aware how much the “Lock the gate” mentality is damaging the future livability of the shire. Allowing more medium density development or becoming the next “Oz Santa Barbara” are neither great choices but the latter is the worse option I think.

  2. Hi Michael.

    I think the 90 days plan for Airbnb will destroy Byron Bay. the shire develop to a stage that depended on tourisim. Less tourist beds. less business in the shire. less Business. lots of empty property. no people in Byron no Byron Bay Vibe.
    we experiencing the situation right now and in the last 2 years with the covid.

    Dear Mayer if you want to live in a quiet non tourist town just move to Evans head or Yamba.
    that’s how Byron Bay was years ago.
    people come here because Byron is unique tourist place with beautiful unique people.

    mean time releases land for developing. it doesn’t look like there is a shorted of land in this shire.

    In 1990 with in 7 years a Million Russian migrate to Israel .
    Israel prepare short cheep accommodation places called “Caravila” kind of caravan park.
    it’s Help until a houses project finished.

    1. Thanks Mika, I agree that there are plenty of other quite slow-moving towns that people could move to if they dont like what has happened to Byron. However, dont suggest that to them as they will get offended. Many people take on the idea that to “protect Byron” we have to stop all development and shut down Airbnb. I would even support shutting down Airbnb if I believed it would help solve the housing crisis. It will make very little difference and the anti-Airbnb agenda is avoidance of looking at the bigger problem – stop being NIMBYs and allow more medium-density development in the towns and villages so diversity of people can live and work here – not just rich people.

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