Save the Waves explores how surfers lost Bastion Point
Surfersvillage Global Surf News, 31 January, 2014 - The rocky headlands that comprise the wilderness coastline of Mallacoota boast more than 100 kilometers of pristine beaches and 320 kilometers of lake shore at the far south-east tip of Victoria on the Australian continent. Mallacoota remains one of the most isolated towns in Victoria, roughly six hours from both Sydney and Melbourne in either direction.
Surrounded by Croajingalong National Park, one of only twelve UNESCO designated World Biosphere Reserve in Australia, making it an ideal destination for birdwatchers, bushwalkers, and other lovers of nature looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. To further contextualize the unspoiled nature of Mallacoota, consider that its closest neighboring town is appropriately named ‘Eden.’
Less than two kilometers out of the center of town is the main surfing beach of Bastion Point. Tim Baker, former editor of Tracks and Surfing Life magazines, passed through Mallacoota in 2010 during a cross-country caravan adventure and describes Bastion Point as a “cold water, Victorian Snapper Rocks.” Baker explains, “On a good day the ride extends almost 500 meters from the outside section, known as Broken Boards, through the Point itself and onwards towards the beachbreaks that extend to the east almost as far as the eye can see.”
Baker also spoke of the frigidity of the water in contrast to the warmth of the locals, who chivalrously wait their turn for waves and don’t mind sharing, as long as you get in the back of the queue. Bastion Point seems to be the unofficial village square of Mallacoota – a place for a surf, a hike, going fishing, exploring the rocky tide pools with your kids, or just a scenic spot to enjoy a quiet lunch.
However, underneath the shimmer of sunlight on the sea and sand, Bastion Point has become a focal point of contention for Mallacootans – as a battle over a proposed boat ramp improvement, one of the longest development battles in Victoria’s history, has divided the town between proponents of progress and preservation. The proposal, known as Option 3b, would bisect the wave at Bastion Point with a 130m long by 3m high breakwall, rendering the marquee section of the wave known as “Broken Boards” unsurfable.
Among other environmentally deleterious effects, such as dynamiting existing reef and rock outcroppings to create a deeper channel, option 3b will also replace a large swath of unspoiled wilderness coast with a carpark. Compounding all of this is the fact that the Bastion Point boat ramp is the only open ocean access point for 150 kilometers between Cape Conran, Victoria, and the Port of Eden, New South Wales.
Artist's imaging of proposed boat facility © ZAH
While the scope of this piece cannot distill all of the convoluted twists and turns that happened from the time of the initial proposal in ’89 through to November 2013 (see savebastionpoint.org for explicit details), this article intends to shed light on the many times that due process failed the community of Bastion Point in their efforts to preserve a beloved community resource. This is a true story of politics at its worst.
Politicians and development proponents employed questionable tactics as a means to an end in what was supposed to have been a democratic procedure, while civically engaged citizens were continually rebuffed by bureaucratic hurdles and were ignored throughout substantive decision-making processes.
The original boat ramp, a simple concrete slab that runs parallel with natural rock outcroppings into the water, was built in the 1960s. By the ‘70s, sand build-up had rendered the boat ramp ineffective for larger vessel launchings, and a tractor was employed to bring boats in and out of the water safely. In 1989 the initial proposal was made for a new ramp, including a breakwater and carpark. There was an obvious consensus among residents that the ramp should be repaired; however, reaching agreement on the type of improvements this public boat ramp needed would prove far more difficult.
Since this proposal, environmental groups such as the Friends of Mallacoota (which, in 2003, spawned the Save Bastion Point Campaign as a unified voice with other groups such as the Mallacoota Boardriders Club) have kept a vigilant eye on developers and their plans to alter the best breaking wave in the region.
Because of Mallacoota’s proximity to the Biosphere Reserve in Croajingalong, and having had its pristine foreshore registered with the National Trust of Australia, Chris Smyth, the Marine Campaign Coordinator for the Australian Conservation Foundation, stated: “How the Victorian Government acts on Bastion Point will be a real test of its commitment to coastal and marine protection. Under the Council’s proposal, Bastion Point would be transformed from a natural icon into an industrial zone, with its scenic and wilderness coast values ripped apart.”
According to Leo op den Brouw, former shire councilman and former president of the Mallacoota Boardriders, the restructuring of several smaller shires into a single larger shire gave development proponents the opportunity to reignite their development proposal, which had stagnated for years at the local council level. Independent MP Craig Ingram submitted the plans in Parliament on behalf of the pro-3b lobby. As one of only a few swing votes in a divided Parliament between the Labor and Liberal parties, Ingram’s vote was influential in breaking parliamentary stalemates and he leveraged his position to ensure the development of 3b in exchange for his voting loyalty with the Labor Party.
Bastion Point lineup © SBP
Planning Minister Justin Madden, an ex-AFL star, convened an independent panel of experts in 2007 to weigh the development proposal options. This panel held public hearings wherein nearly 90% of all public submissions presented (487 in total) were against Option 3b and in favor of something more small scale and less environmentally degrading. The panel produced an exhaustive 180-page report that resoundingly refuted Option 3b on the grounds of economics (the current ramp costs $50,000 annually to operate, while 3b would cost $6 million to build and hundreds of thousands to operate annually due to ongoing dredging), aesthetics (a significant negative visual impact on the wilderness landscape), safety, and most importantly, overwhelming community consensus for a lower impact option.
In fact, the Save Bastion Point Campaign had cooperated with the Boating Industry Association of Victoria (BIAV) to create an alternative low-impact proposal, which became the only option that the panel recommended for development. Despite these facts, Madden held the panel’s findings in private until he produced his own response in 2009, which ignored the panel’s recommendations, insisting that ‘safety considerations’ were not appropriately weighed by the panel.
The panel’s concerns, echoed by the BIAV, were about the placement and height of the breakwater, which would essentially blind boaters to incoming broadside swells, other boats, and other potential resource users, such as surfers. Madden, disregarding these objections, chose to focus solely on the risks associated with beachgoers at play near the ramp location – despite the fact that an accident between a surfer or swimmer and a boater at Bastion Point has never been reported. By making use of the executive privilege established for the office of the Planning Minister per the Environmental Effects Act (EEA) of 1978, which mandates an environmental impact study but also allows the Planning Minister to override these findings at his discretion, Madden dismissed his own expert panel’s recommendations and gave Option 3b his blessing to move forward.
Astonished and outraged, the Friends of Mallacoota filed an appeal to the Supreme Court – the first time in Victorian history that such an action has been taken against a Planning Minister by a community organization. The case was heard in May 2010, and although the court decided in favor of Madden on the basis of the way in which the statutes are written, the presiding judge, Justice Osborn, questioned Madden’s logic, if not his motives.