Clouds Gathering Over Don's Cabins
Last month, the NSW state government began lowering the curtain on a long-established and much-loved South Coast destination.
Don Hearns Cabins were built in the sixties by Don Hearn, a WWII veteran from Western Sydney who returned home a staunch pacifist, later moving south to establish the cabins and taking his politics with him.
Set among casuarinas on Cunjurong Point, a five-minute stroll to Green Island (or an excitable two-minute sprint), the cabins were, according to their website, “built out of second and third hand materials by rank amateurs between bongs and good waves.”
Through the Vietnam War, Don’s Cabins became a refuge for conscientious objectors and decades after Saigon fell they remained a haven for escapees of a different kind. As the world sped up, got complex, it was a place to kick back and unwind; hop off the hamster wheel for a while.
In 1991, Don passed away and handed stewardship to Lexie Meyer, who remained faithful to Don’s vision of simplicity among nature.
In 2002, however, the lease ran out on Don’s Cabins and the NSW Department of Planning and Environment refused to reissue a long term lease. Since then, Lexie has been operating Don’s Cabins on a month by month basis.
This arrangement discouraged capital investment - why sink money into a place whose future isn’t assured? Nevertheless, Lexie maintained upkeep of the cabins, as older clientele kept returning, and new generations discovered the cabins for themselves.
As the character of the South Coast slowly changed: fibro shacks razed and replaced by large footprint weekenders, the encroachment of AirBNBs, and even caravan parks going upmarket, Don’s maintained a sense of modesty and sensible pricing - prices still start at $50 a night - that allowed equitable access to an increasingly expensive slice of coast.
Clouds were gathering, so to speak, when in 2021 the NSW Department of Planning and Environment sent Lexie a letter notifying her of possible eviction. This was shortly after the South Coast was ravaged by bushfire and the department’s action seemed, at least partly, a response to that. The sudden motivation to terminate the lease appeared related to building standards and bushfire codes.
Then, late last month, the department sent another letter. Parts of it are reproduced below:
We now wish to advise that we are intending to issue you with a formal notice of termination on 15 January 2024 which will provide you with a further 3 months to vacate the Property, being before Mondav, 15 April 2024.
This decision to terminate the Lease is based on the following:
1. A building structural assessment has confirmed that the cabins at the Property range from poor to very poor condition and that substantial works would be required to address existing structural issues.
2. Redevelopment of the site to meet current NSW Rural Fire Service's 'Planning for Bushfire Protection' standards would be impossible because of the environmental site constraints and making significant improvements in bushfire protection to the existing cabins would be prohibitively expensive for any potential developer or operator.
3. Siting a tourism development in a small cleared area surrounded by bushland on 3 sides which is outside of the defendable boundary of the rest of the village exposes the occupants to an unacceptable risk.
Lexie is adamant that all three points can be refuted and/or remedied. The timing, however, is vexatious and reeks of opportunism. Seeking legal advice over Christmas is notoriously difficult.
Nevertheless, over sixty years Don’s Cabins generated much goodwill and regulars are now leaning on networks to help Lexie. The first point of order is to get an extension so the date doesn’t pass while offices are closed for Christmas and the New Year.
The news isn’t great, yet the curtain hasn’t fallen. The story of Don’s Cabins has more acts to come.