West Australian - April 12, 2003


Growing pains stir trouble in paradise
Tony Barrass

CORAL BAY, the jewel of Ningaloo and one of the most promising tourism nodes on the continent, is a mess - an overcrowded, barely functioning, bizarrely regulated, inequitable, unmitigated mess.

What could be a world-class, well-managed and very lucrative precinct delicately balancing jobs with a unique environment is in reality a planning and environmental basket-case.

And with the Gallop Government considering the fate of the nearby $180 million Mauds Landing marina, key areas of the North-West Cape continue to face an uncertain future through government indecision and lack of vision.

Locals are fighting land grabs by government agencies determined to excise nature strips from pastoral leases, working around a lack of resolve by authorities to deliver basic services such as water, power and sewerage, ironing out numerous conflicts over the Mauds Landing proposal, trying to resolve angry claims of unfair commercial advantages being given to business rivals through the granting of CALM licences while battling to end numerous arguments over which authorities should be entrusted with overseeing the most spectacular, pristine fringe reef on Earth.

Mix into that some intriguing sub-plots; one involving a publicity-shy, politically-savvy environmental group that champions an alternative "strategy" to Mauds Landing, the other involving pivotal Greens preferences vital to the re-election of the Gallop Government.

The paradox is that while many eyes are on Mauds Landing and the potential impact of such a development on the area, Coral Bay continues to pose the biggest single environmental threat to the reef through ad hoc development, lack of proper planning and rapidly expanding human habitation.

An investigation by The West Australian has also found that:

Local Aboriginal groups have signed off on a jobs-for-youth deal with the Mauds Landing developers and are keen to see the project get the go-ahead.

Archaic planning and building restrictions mean some workers and their families live in appalling conditions.

Several family-run businesses are on the verge of collapse due to what they claim is policy-on-the-run by local authorities.

Those same authorities admit to turning a blind eye to health and safety issues because if they didn't, "we'd have to close the whole place down".

Some Cape pastoralists have been given an ultimatum by the State - hand over a 2km coastal strip or your lease will not be renewed in 2015.

A refusal by successive State and local authorities to implement anything other than makeshift and temporary strategies since the 1980s has only added to planning confusion in what remains one of the few privately owned communities in Australia.

Report after report, proposal after proposal, committee after committee has so far been unable to safeguard properly the settlement, the reef and those who live and work in and around it. The Coral Bay Coastal Management Plan (1984); the Coral Bay Planning Strategy (1992); the Legislative Council Select Committee on Cape Range and Ningaloo Marine Park (1995); the Coral Bay Taskforce Report on Infrastructure Requirements (1996); the Gascoyne Coast Regional Strategy (1996); the North-West Structure Plan (1998); the Coral Bay Settlement Plan (1998); the Environmental and Planning Guidelines for Tourism Development on the North-West Cape (1999) are just a few of the many.

The latest committee, made up of CALM, the Department of Planning and Infrastructure, Carnarvon and Exmouth Shires, the WA Tourism Commission, the Department of Indigenous Affairs and other interested parties is now compiling yet another blueprint for the region.

Many critics believe the State Government has completely abrogated its responsibilities by not providing the most basic of services, responsibilities left in the hands of three Coral Bay landowners who through necessity have dug sewer pits, sunk bores and set up power supplies.

Others, including the Shire of Carnarvon, believe the State must declare or gazette Coral Bay as a town and take over the delivery and maintenance of water, power and sewerage. To leave it in local hands would be to invite a potential environmental and health risk which could expose the supplier, most say unfairly, and potential litigation.

The Brogan family, by far the biggest stakeholders in the settlement, have freehold title over about 10ha and have invested a fortune developing their substantial commercial holdings while providing the basic services to a settlement now bursting at the seams.

They want to see the area grow and are as frustrated as anyone in dealing with authorities. Because they are the biggest, it's no surprise they have their fair share of detractors, but even their harshest critics admit that without the vision of patriarch Bill Brogan, now in his 70s, Coral Bay would not exist.

One farcical example of planning silliness. With no land being released by the State, people who move into the area - business people with a long-term commitment to the region, seasonal workers, fishermen, pilots, bar staff, tourist guides - must live in a makeshift suburb colloquially known as Little Kenya which is tucked behind the Brogans' caravan park. Put simply, there's just nowhere else for them to go.

Under Carnarvon Shire by-laws, permanent residency in Coral Bay is banned. Therefore, a couple of hundred full-time residents living in Little Kenya do not officially exist.

These imaginary people must pay rent, water and power bills to the Brogans who, again under shire rules, want to, but cannot, provide proper accommodation for workers until the State provides Coral Bay with - wait for it - water and sewerage.

While Premier Geoff Gallop recently announced that a $7.5 million sewerage system would be installed, locals will believe it when they see it. It's almost a year since that particular promise and not a sod of dirt has been turned - nor is it likely to until a decision is made on Mauds Landing.

But that hasn't stopped the Water Corporation sending the Brogans a bill for $250,000 - to be paid in 31 days - for their contribution to the new taxpayer-funded sewerage scheme. They will have little choice but to slap a levy on their tenants.

Meanwhile, many government agencies have been unwilling to commit substantial funds and relocate staff to such an isolated area, adding to local annoyance. CALM has been singled out over its handling of several marine-based issues such as the licensing of moorings. Some say the agency doesn't have the expertise to deal with such matters, a claim denied by the department.

A handful of boat owners and professional fishermen are allowed to moor at nearby Bill's Bay while others aren't, sparking accusations by business rivals of an unfair commercial advantage. Ticketing booths organising whale shark diving, snorkelling tours and kayak hire have for years been allowed, even encouraged, to expand - but have now been told by Carnarvon Shire they must pack up their businesses and go. Where? No one is quite sure.

Other issues continue to stir local passions, from long-promised boat ramps to upgrading a basic air strip on nearby Aboriginal-owned Cardabia Station, from the push to secure World Heritage Listing for the area to whether one overriding authority, not dissimilar to Queensland's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, should be created to take control of all issues from the environment to tourism to land use.

Passionately opposing opinions and rival businesses agree on one thing. Ningaloo reef is a natural gift which must, at all costs, be protected for future generations.

The big question is how.

Send automated letters to stop the resortSend a submission