Almost 80 people protested out the front of Eurobodalla Shire Council's offices on Wednesday morning in relation to the closure of a section of Congo Road.
Congo village, located about eight kilometres southeast of Moruya has two access roads: a southern public access road off Bingie Road that has been sealed all the way to the village, and a northern access road which has a section running through private property.
Council has recently made the decision to close the northern access road at the request of the landowner who "raised concerns recently over the high risk of public liability claims" according to a council spokesperson.
Members of the Congo community also raised issues with the Council's plans to remove 10 road-side trees in an attempt to retain public use of the road. A council spokesperson said the council had also received correspondence from other residents asking for the trees to be removed to allow the road to open.
In a letter written by Congo residents and addressed to Eurobodalla Shire Council GM Catherine Dale, residents say the road should be opened because the landowner's insurance issues are "his private problem".
"The road has been in continuous use for over 40 years, and is a public right of way," the letter reads.
"The landowner's insurance issues are his private problem, not Council's, nor the community's."
The letter also accused council of having a "conflict of interest" over the issue.
"If Council is acting on behalf of a private landholder to save them thousands of dollars in insurance premiums, then this could potentially be perceived as a conflict of interest," the letter reads.
"The community recognises the current road traverses private land, and therefore it is the landholder, not Council, who is responsible for seeking legal permission to clear the trees under the appropriate legislation and, if successful, for paying to have those trees removed."
The community also claims the safety of the village would be compromised if the road remained closed.
"The closure of Congo Road presents an immediate safety risk to the residents and visitors to Congo," the letter reads.
"Congo is heading into its busiest summer period - the road closure not only inconveniences residents, it prevents northern access to the settlement for emergency vehicles.
"Additionally, in the event of a bushfire, Congo will become a 'one road in/one road out' settlement. It also forces elderly residents to navigate the Bingie Road/Princes Highway intersection to access Moruya, and some have expressed their concern about this."
The letter concludes with a request to open the road as of December 10 and leave it open while any legal issues are ironed out by the Council and the private landowner. As of December 16, Congo Road North remains closed.
In a statement, a Eurobodalla Shire Council spokesperson said the council was unable to indemnify the private landowner, but did agree to work with him to mitigate the risk to both the community and him as a landowner.
"Congo Road north, via South Head Road, is mostly sealed, but an unsealed section in the middle passes through private property," the statement reads.
"This route provides a minor shortcut to the village whereby the public has enjoyed access across private land at the discretion of the landowner.
"The landowner raised concerns recently over the high risk of public liability claims. Council is unable to indemnify the landowner but agreed to work with the landowner to mitigate the risk to the community and to him as a landowner.
"Council initially had agreement of the landowner to retain public use of the road subject to the removal of 10 road-side trees. Council sought legal advice to ensure it could legally undertake that activity under the Roads Act 1993.
"Some members of the community objected to this work and raised concerns about the legal ability of Council to undertake the work, citing an alternate legal view.
"The work on the trees was paused and those legal questions referred to Council's legal advisors for further review. Due to the complexity of the context, this legal advice is not expected until the New Year.
"Council has also received correspondence from some residents asking that the trees be removed to allow the road to be re-opened."
The statement said the landowner had subsequently chosen to withdraw consent for public access to his land, but he was willing to work with emergency services on better access to Congo.
"To ensure his own legal protection, the landowner has withdrawn consent for the public to access across his land along the physical gravel road regardless of any work that may be undertaken by Council to mitigate the risk," the statement reads.
"The landowner has indicated a preparedness to work with the RFS in an emergency in the community interest, and the RFS has also indicated an ability to invoke powers of entry during an emergency response situation.
"NSW Ambulance has indicated their crews are on the road and mobile. They will use the legal access via Congo Road south should they need to respond to Congo Village.
"Council can confirm that indemnifying the private landowner is not an option. This has been explored with Council's insurer and its insurance broker.
"For public roads in the Shire, Council is the road authority and can make and enact decisions about road safety and risk mitigation within the provisions of the Roads Act 1993.
"As a roads authority, Council also has protection under the Civil Liabilities Act 2002. In this instance, the section of road in question is privately owned and Council is therefore not the road authority and not protected under the Civil Liabilities Act.
"The section of Congo Road north across the private land will therefore remain closed as per the landowner's decision."
NSWRFS Far South Coast District Coordinator Daniel Osborne confirmed the RFS had the ability to enter private land in the event of an emergency.
"The Rural Fires Act gives provisions and power to officers of the RFS to be able to access property, force entry, and to have persons removed from a situation if it is deemed necessary in the combating of a fire or protecting life," he said.
"While we have these powers, we absolutely prefer to work with landowners and the community to achieve the desired outcome. We don't use these powers unnecessarily, we don't take these powers lightly, and we have a high level of accountability if we need to invoke these powers."
The landowners have been contacted for comment, but hadn't responded as of Friday afternoon.
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