Camping at Brunswick Heads
Camping at Brunswick Heads

Winds of change blow through parks

TEN FAMILIES have just been given a month to hitch up their wagons – or sell them at low cost to Byron Shire Council – and get out of Suffolk Park Holiday Park by the beginning of May.

It’s part of a change that is coming to caravan parks all over Australia, altering not only the look of the parks, but also the sense of community that once was the trademark of many of them.

I have to declare an interest here. I’m a member of one of those ‘storage’ or ‘holiday van’ families. Nearly 20 years ago, we bought an old van at the park, and over the years added a fixed annexe to it, did a bit of landscaping around it, and cleared the rubbish off the dune behind it, planting a few native trees and (unwittingly) creating a space much favoured by a tribe of bush turkeys, who built a massive mound there.

Eviction notices, giving the requisite minimum 90 days notice, were received on Christmas Eve. An appeal to a Tenancy Tribunal last week gave an extra month.

Karen Whelan, whose Brisbane family had been coming to the park for over 40 years, says the impact of being told to leave has been “devastating – not only for my family but for our Suffolk Park community.”

“We don’t just come in prime holiday season ... many of us feel this is our second home and we treat it as such,” Karen says. “What we have is a sense of belonging, not only in the park but in the entire Suffolk Park community.”

Now, in parks owned by councils or operated by managers appointed by the former Department of Lands, now called the Land and Property Management Authority (LAPMA), which owns all caravan parks situated on Crown lands, the economic imperative places short-term tourism above long-term or residential occupation of caravan park sites. Permanent sites are disappearing by attrition, with residential leases expiring when owners move away or die. This robs the community of what was once a low-cost, first-home option for young people getting a foothold on the property ladder, as well as for retired folk wanting a quiet and simple life (and death) in a supportive caravan park community by the sea or in the bush.

The year-round presence of permanent residents, along with the frequent visits from holiday van families, gave caravan parks a continuity of community that set a tone for the visitors from all over Australia and around the world who come to camp for a few days or a couple of weeks. Suffolk Park Holiday Park is one of many North Coast parks famous for its great ‘vibe’. More modern parks have regimented vans, cabins and tent sites in straight lines, often with little natural bushland around them; but parks like Suffolk grew in a more natural, haphazard way, with curious nooks and crannies and abundant native bush. This has already changed, with new blue Safari tents with roofs and raised floors where once there was a colourful array of tourists’ tents.

Suffolk Park is not the only caravan park facing these changes.

A meeting was held in January at Evans Head to tell storage van residents from the Silver Sands Holiday Park of proposed upgrading of the camping area of their park. Peter Larsen, of Tuntable Creek, told the Rivertown Times after that meeting that for the past nine years, a large group of campers had been like one big family. “Under this plan it looks like we will all be split up,” he said. “This push to upgrade the park and encourage a higher paying tenant might look good on accountants’ tables, but fails to take advantage of the type of client that has been coming to Evans Head for many years – the family.”

A management plan for Silver Sands has been placed on exhibition and about 60 public submissions now are under consideration by The Richmond Valley Council. The expectation is that rapid turn-over tourist bed numbers will be maximised, at the expense of long-term residential and holiday van sites. LAPMA says its policy is ‘predominantly to provide short-term holiday or tourist accommodation, and to convert long-term sites to short-term sites where possible.’

The Silver Sands plan was a creation of Sydney consultancy firm Integrated Site Design, which is also producing plans for three holiday parks at Brunswick Heads.

Sean O’Meara’s family has lived in the same house on The Terrace at Brunswick Heads for 100 years, just over the road from the public reserve that is home to the Terrace Holiday Park. Over the years the park has grown like topsy, now spilling into an overflow area abutting the roadside and just 10 metres from residential properties.

“We didn’t have an issue with the holiday people who came back year after year,” Sean says. “We got to know them, and make friends with them when they were here at Christmas or Easter. But now it’s a whole different story. They’ve gone, and we’re getting around 80 different people in tents right next to the road who come in every weekend, make a lot of noise and trash the place. It’s all about money. These people probably pay as much for one night, as a permanent would pay for a week.”

Curiously, there is no management plan at all for Suffolk Park Holiday Park. A former plan from the 1980s has never been formally approved, according to the Suffolk Park Progress Association.

Byron Shire Council finance manager Jim Bolger told The Northern Star this week: “Currently the holiday park is classified as community land and does not operate under a plan of management.”

Yet minutes from a Strategic Planning Committee Meeting, reporting to Byron Shire Council on September 24, show that on June 11 last year council had been advised it ‘must adopt a Plan of Management for community land.’

Council staff are keen to reclassify Suffolk Park Holiday Park from ‘community’ to ‘operational’ land. This would mean, among other things, that it could be sold. Or developed. It is easy to imagine the sort of thing that could happen to such a glorious stretch of beachfront land. Back in 1996, council actually tried to sell the park, featuring it in a glossy brochure distributed in Japan and describing it as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Byron Shire properties for sale.

But documents unearthed by the Suffolk Park Progress Association at the time showed what the elders in the Suffolk Park general community had always believed: the land had been a bequest, held in trust for the community by the council.

Yet the Planning Committee report to Council in June last year has questioned even that, advising that: “Documentation for this parcel of land indicates the land was not bequeathed or gifted to the community, but was required to be transferred to Council as open space as part of the original subdivision.”

“If the holiday park were to become operational land,” Jim Bolger says, “it does not need a plan of management. However, council has resolved (to develop) a business plan which will be presented to Council in 2010/11.

“A report will go to council on April 22.”

Read more:

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Showground camp ban across NSW

Caravan parks suggested as a fix



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