Uniting against common enemy
DRESSED in Hard Yakka green, Knockrow farmer Greg James squints through the rain, his eyes focused on the distant outline of a fig tree towering above neatly-planted rows of macadamias.
He tries to imagine the six-lane freeway threatening to split this vista, and shakes his head.
The thought of his kids traversing a freeway to swim under the waterfall nestled in half-a-hectare of rare remnant rainforest on the western side of his 40ha macadamia property is a vision too terrible to conjure up for him.
"Two thousand of my best producing trees would be lost, and the farm would become unviable," he says.
Even worse, he predicts: "I don't know how I'd survive it mentally."
While the Tintenbar-to-Ewingsdale Pacific Highway upgrade is yet to gouge its way through Greg James's farm, the mental and emotional carnage it has wreaked on the community is evident.
From one side of the current highway to the other, threats, insults and rhetoric have been exchanged, friendships destroyed.
The virtues of prime agricultural land along the ridgeline and the effect the new highway would have on water quality in Emigrant Creek have been pitched ? with venom ? against the ecological values of the wetlands near Broken Head and the iconic views and property values that would be lost along the Newrybar/Coopers Shoot escarpment.
"It's become ridiculous," Mr James says.
"I even had one bloke say to me 'My macadamias taste better than your macadamias'," he says.
"The highway shouldn't be decided by whose farm is better than another's."
The bitterness among those pitted against each other in the fight to prevent their properties falling victim to one of the RTA's highway upgrade route options reached a crescendo last month when the RTA's C and D options added Broken Head into the mix.
However, the vitriol of public meetings is beginning to change: Instead of competition, there is a new camaraderie among those affected by the highway upgrade who are now banding together to challenge the RTA with one voice.
"We don't have an official name yet, but we're calling it the 'united group'," explains retired school principal Jack Harper, who made Newrybar his utopia 10 years ago and is now threatened by the RTA's C and D options that would slice through Newrybar and the alluvial soils of Broken Head.
After listening to story after story of despair and frustration at the recent parliamentary inquiry into the highway upgrade, Mr Harper says he realised the division created was clearly working against people, a tactic he describes as the RTA's 'divide and conquer' method.
"A divided community is not going to be successful against the RTA," he says.
Despite the $2.2 billion the RTA has committed to the entire Pacific Highway upgrade, Mr Harper is convinced his group can sway it to change its mind on this section: "I don't think the RTA can afford the voter dissent," he says.
"When people get together then the politicians have to listen."
In a packed meeting at Newrybar Hall last week more than 220 people responded to the group's call to unite, reaching consensus to lobby the RTA against any new highway route, demand an alternative inland highway, move interstate heavy freight on to the New England Highway and support the construction of the Ballina bypass.
Using slick Powerpoint presentations, people-power slogans, a large slush fund and the backing of seasoned campaigners including Greens MP Ian Cohen, the united group aims to have 20,000 residents signed up to their vision in time for the December 2 deadline for submissions on the upgrade and gain the ears of those in Macquarie Street, Sydney.
"We will not allow the RTA to set the goals, choose the teams, write the rules and be the referee," says Paul Gannon, who spoke at the Newrybar Hall meeting.
"Under those conditions we may as well roll over and die. They win and we lose.
"We will not play the game any more. We need to come together team and we need to stand up and say what we want."
At the heart of the united campaign is the argument that the upgrade of the Pacific Highway would create a new motorway designed by the RTA for interstate trucks, not safety.
"If road safety was their main concern they would make changes to the existing highway that would make it safer immediately," Mr Gannon claims.
"Speed limits and speed cameras, to name just two. They have not made those changes...because these changes would also make the existing road less attractive to interstate heavy vehicles. The interstate heavy vehicle traffic is driving the RTA's agenda."
While the group spearheads a groundswell of revolt along the coast, its call to send the highway west has met with anger from those who will potentially play host.
"Oh, you're following up on the not in my backyard syndrome," bristles Casino mayor Charlie Cox when asked what he thinks of an inland highway plan.
"Just because there's a lot of space out here doesn't mean it is any less valuable than along the coast," he says, citing the extensive cattle-breeding and soybean farms that dominate the area.
Back at Knockrow, macadamia farmer Greg James shares Mr Cox's doubt.
"I'm really suspicious of the united plan," he says.
"If they push for the Ballina bypass to go ahead it will force the RTA to choose option A or B which cut through my farm."
At a 'united group' meeting in Byron Bay this week one of the organisers, Tony Gilding, a Coopers Shoot property owner, conceded the group's support for the Ballina bypass was largely based on 'getting the numbers' needed to force the NSW Government to take the community seriously.
He also admitted the plan had the potential to backfire and lock the RTA into option A or B.
Despite the mistrust Greg James feels towards the group, he has reluctantly signed up to the united plan.
It's a high-stake gamble he feels forced to take.
If the united group wins, and the Pacific Highway is upgraded to a class A highway along its current route, the worst-case scenario for Greg James is the loss of a slice of his property, albeit including his house, as the highway is widened or realigned.
If it fails, he loses his livelihood and a six-lane motorway carving its way through the centre of his farm will become a reality.
"I can handle losing my house, but not my whole farm."
What do you think?
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