The majestic Seal Rocks, an idyllic escape and the jewel in our crown has been the subject of a development debate. As a draft plan comes forward, so, too, do the protests. We hear both sides of the story.
The small coastal village of Seal Rocks is recognised as one of the most attractive and scenic locations on the Mid North Coast.
It is famous for many premier surfing beaches, such as Lighthouse Beach, Treachery and Yagon and also hosts the Seal Rocks lighthouse, known as Sugarloaf Lighthouse.
Currently the normally sleepy village’s residents and supporters are making a big noise, with thousands of the population of New South Wales and beyond mustering arms to oppose a proposed Draft Plan of Management for the future development of the Seal Rocks Camping Reserve.
Since the proposed development was placed on public display by Great Lakes Council, opposition has been escalating at a rapid rate – with nearly 12,000 people registering their objection on social networking site, Facebook.
The plan would have a reduction of total sites from 133 to 113, with the provision of on-site cabins increasing to 30 from 12. The proposed caravan park at Seal Rocks sits on Crown Land near Sugarloaf Bay for public recreation, with Great Lakes Council appointed as the trustee.
The Draft Plan says the reserve is currently in a reasonable and acceptable condition; however, many of its facilities are in need of repair and restructuring.
Many issues in the proposal and their outcomes have incensed the local residents and their supporters, because they’re designed to attract more tourists to what locals see will be an upmarket facility.
The Save the Seal Rocks committee on Facebook says the camping reserve has, through tradition, been a low cost camping reserve for the public.
The committee and its members reject the draft plan, as it is a resort style plan and does not sit within the natural surrounds. They add, “Nobody wants to see the camping reserve changed into a resort style development and caravan park.
“People love Seal Rocks for what it is, and we believe that Great Lakes Shire Council has no right to develop the camping reserve as outlined in the Draft Plan of Management.” Some of the recommendations are acknowledged as being essential, including new picnic facilities, showers, toilets, playground and a sewerage upgrade.
However it is the proposed kiosk/café, swimming pools, community rooms and other facilities residents fear will turn the proposed caravan park into an unaffordable option for many families.
Great Lakes Council believes their proposal will complement the area and assist in increasing revenue to maintain the park.
The Council has stated the proposal will not see the area of land expanded, with the plans confined to the existing area. The draft proposal says the document was prepared in accordance with the Crown Lands Act 1989, providing a framework for the future management, use and development of the Seal Rocks Caravan Park.
The draft was also made with other legislation, including environmental planning policies as well as guidelines and strategies also requiring consideration – especially where any new development proposals are contemplated.
Council believes the plan provides a long term strategy for the management of the proposed Seal Rocks Caravan Park. The majority of the works are to be implemented over a 10 year period, with several of the initiatives being introduced in the initial five years that will meet community needs.
So why is the Seal Rocks region so important to more than 12,000 people? It is well known and famous for its beaches, which are described as large, beautiful and untouched. A fanatical marine mate of mine who spends his spare time in the water and camping in the area tells me the region is a haven for spectacular experiences.
“When you go diving you have unbelievable experiences of seeing a huge array of marine life such as numerous species of sharks, fish species, including Kingfish, large stingrays, Blackfish and Blue Gropers. The area of Seal Rocks provides a low cost camping site, making it affordable for everyone to experience.”
One of its major tourist attractions is the spectacular Seal Rocks lighthouse (Sugarloaf Point Lighthouse) that overlooks an unspoilt beach and the group of offshore rocky outcrops that give the area its name.
The now iconic lighthouse was built in 1875 to highlight the treacherous Seal Rocks for ships, and it is the second-most easterly lighthouse in Australia, after the Byron Bay lighthouse.
The tower is constructed of brick, rendered and painted white, with three cottages – outbuildings. The initial light was improved in 1923 and converted from acetylene gas, with electricity introduced in 1966. Another attraction is the shipwrecks, which include the now submerged steamer Koriki, a paddle-wheeler Rainbow and the Harvester, which struck a submerged rock.
Two kilometres north there is the wreck of the 2179-tonne steamship Catterthun, which struck a reef and sank during a storm in August 1895, taking 61 passengers to a watery grave. All of this sounds like a tourist’s haven enriched with history; however, the group who are trying to save the area believe it is one of the last frontiers – so why destroy it?
With many of our coastal regions under rapid expansion, the Save Seal Rocks protests see the development as a forerunner to the expansion and loss of the traditional beauty of our coastline. “For years Councils have approved small developments that have led to being added to on a bigger scale, spoiling the coast with resorts etc,” regular visitor Alan Turner said.
“The Great Lakes area offers excellent tourist facilities around Forster and its surrounds. I believe in 10 to 15 years Seal Rocks and other similar areas will end up the same way by being built out.”
The Council, with the release of its plan, has tried to be as transparent as it can be by outlining and addressing many issues and concerns.
The Council states that the objectives of the Plan of Management are to identify the resources and values of the reserve that is used for the proposed caravan park and to recognise the role of the park to provide recreational and tourist accommodation requirements for the community and visitors.
With ever changing community demands, Council sees a need to establish a vision and strategic direction for the future management and improvement of not only Seal Rocks, but all parks in its control.
Also, Council says the proposal addresses the many environmental issues required, such as to protect, conserve and enhance the natural, cultural, scenic, social, recreational and economic values of a caravan park by providing acceptable pedestrian linkages to and from the beaches and coastal lands.
Speaking on Radio Great Lakes, Mayor Jan McWilliams was adamant the plan was in keeping with the area, with the proposed plan being outsourced to consultants Integrated Site Design for evaluation, and it was a reasonable approach by her Council in seeking the improvements.
“These plans are needed to improve and update the facilities,” Mayor Jan McWilliams said.
“It is understandable some long term local residents may be concerned, but I can assure everyone they have no fears.
“These plans are for everyone: local residents, tourists and families to enjoy. “This a move to cater for everyone’s needs in today’s world and the future.”
The Save the Seal Rocks movement sees the Great Lakes Council as having lost touch with the community and acting for other interests, such as government bureaucrats and possible developers. President of the Save Seal Rocks Committee Bernie King is no stranger to taking on the Great lakes Council over proposed developments.
The Save the Seal Rocks members fought hard in 1986 to gain a favourable decision from Chief Cripps in the Land and Environment Court when the group protested over a development on five acres on Thomas Road.
Bernie King moved to Seal rocks in 1981, and with local residents has become passionate to keep the area in its current condition.
“Firstly, I must point out several of the proposals in the plans are badly needed,” King said. “The sewerage system and water are in urgent need of upgrading.
“Also, a playground, kiosk to cater for visitors in peak periods is warranted.” The committee believes the term caravan park is not valid, as the area under question is a designated camping reserve. “The camping trust applied to have the area upgraded to a caravan park on December 24, 2008.
“To this day there are no documents or registration to change its purpose, so the area is a camping reserve, not a caravan park.”
Bernie King and his committee says the proposed development is open to a huge upgrade in the future after the State Government did a study on all coastal parks.
“There are approximately 300 Crown Land parks on the coast of New South Wales.
“The survey was a business plan to ascertain the viability of all parks in their care.
“The bureaucrats want their facilities upgraded to increase revenue, with the possibility of selling to the highest bidder.”
Although assurances have been given that the parks will remain under the control of trusts, the committee says no guarantees have been forthcoming.
“Areas north of here such as Byron Bay have been opened up to commercial development, so there is no firm promise it will stay as a reserve.”
Another area of concern is the current income and expenditure the reserve generates, with a cloud over where the money goes.
“Currently the Council collects $760,000 in fees from the Seal Rocks Camping Reserve. “$100,000 goes on administration, $276,000 to the caretaker, who is responsible for basic maintenance such as toilet cleaning and the grounds.
“We know the reserve makes $70,000 profit, but it is unknown where the balance of the income is spent.
“We believe the new plans will not be commercially viable. “The additional cabins through wear and tear and depreciation will be written off in the future, so they will not be long term.”
The Save the Seal Rocks committee through public meetings, with more planned in the future, have raised funds for a fighting fund to mirror their actions in 1984.
The Great Lakes Council meeting to discuss the proposal will be held in the future and is assured of attracting a full house of spectators from the community. The Council has the unenviable task of keeping local residents happy, while at the same time looking for viable ways to improve and update the current facilities.
Story by Peter Lyne