By Tom Wegener
Earlier this year, from January to March 2021, I strenuously argued for councillors and staff to change their policies towards the expansion of short term accommodation (STAs) into Noosa’s medium and high density neighbourhoods.
I stated in a speech to council: “The reality is, as we continue to approve STAs in medium density, the amenity will be lost, precedents set, and the expectation of a predominantly residential neighbourhood will be turned to a tourist precinct. This change is consistent and inevitable with staff’s interpretation of the town plan as supporting STAs.”
I lost the council vote 6-1 back then and I thought I had no influence on staff.
Since I made that speech, and subsequently posted it on social media, council planning staff have received information relating to the extent and impact of STAs on beach and riverside communities, and have found that 23 per cent of residences in these areas have become STAs. It is clear that this is exacerbating our workforce housing crisis. The planning staff in council have shifted their position and have determined that most coastal medium density and high density areas have passed the “tipping point” and are no longer predominantly residential neighbourhoods. They have also found that amenity in these neighbourhoods had deteriorated. In their view, the town plan no longer supports STAs in these areas, which is the exact position I was advocating from January to March.
The town plan did not change, the residential environment changed and staff have responded. The next question is whether the councillors will support staff’s changed position.
Two weeks ago, four months after I presented my arguments, four new STA applications came before council, three of these in medium density and one in high density. This time staff recommended refusing all the applications. The one application for an STA in Peregian, on the west side of David Low Way, was refused by six councillors and the staff recommendation was supported. My arguments presented here are in regard to the other three applications, one in Noosaville and two in Sunshine Beach.
When councillors began to discuss the recommended refusals, the issue of precedence set by the January to March 2021 decisions became the centre of attention. Councillors were concerned that refusals of STA applications would be subject to legal action because they were inconsistent with the decisions that they had made four months earlier. They felt that making such a broad change in their thinking would lead to confusion and legal battles with those desiring to make future applications for STAs.
Instead of refusing the applications, Mayor Stewart and Cr Lorentson brought a motion to create a study that will give an overview of the housing situation in Noosa and make recommendations. If this study recommends limiting STAs in Noosa, then the councillors will act. This would be the line in the sand, stating clearly, and based on evidence, that we need to address the housing and workforce crisis.
I argued that a study was fine, but staff had received sufficient evidence to change their position and, furthermore, we are faced with stories of housing and worker shortages every day. I argued that we have all the tools and evidence we need already and we must make hard decisions now. We cannot use this study to kick the can down the road. We have to do our job and refuse the applications. I argued that the line in the sand has to be drawn now.
I offered the analogy that the ship Noosa is sailing out on the ocean watching a super tanker on the radar. We think we are going to miss the tanker, but then it changes direction and speeds up. It is obvious the situation has changed and we must change course. I also suggested that Noosa is like a restaurant which was very successful two years ago, but now we have added many tables and cut staff. Things are not going to end well unless we manage the situation. It is our job to manage the shire.
I also argued that precedence is not an issue because we are still supporting the town plan. The rules are the same, it is the residential environment that has changed. Some councillors responded to comments from the public that the council was “making policy on the run” and that the STA applicants and consultants were “laughing at us” because they believed they would easily win in a legal battle if we supported the staff recommendations.
I responded that they are not laughing because they would win, but they would be laughing all the way to the bank because if we approve these applications, a precedent will be set based on the new residential environment, and we will then never win in court. We should be supporting the clear meaning and principles of the town plan by refusing the applications. This is far from making policy on the run.
Five councillors voted to approve the applications for STAs in Noosaville and Sunshine Beach. Only Cr Frank Wilkie voted with me on refusing the applications.
Sadly, my predictions from March have come true. There is little to prevent STAs from spreading into medium and high density for a long time, or until the proposed study confirms what we already know – that amenity is deteriorating, these are no longer predominantly residential neighbourhoods, and we have a housing and workforce crisis.
Tom Wegener is a Noosa Shire Councillor.