Underground home owners left in limbo in White Cliffs in face of successful native title claim

Photo: Enid Black and neighbour Mal Burns outside their dugout home, a former 1900s opal mine, by Grant Turner/Mediakoo.com.

Residents of White Cliffs in northwestern New South Wales have been left in limbo after being told leases on their underground homes would be terminated, rendering the properties worthless in the face of a successful native title claim.

Miners created the dugout homes more than 100 years ago when they converted old opal mines into shelters and carved homes into the hills around White Cliffs to escape the town’s excessive heat, which routinely swelters above 40 degrees in summer.

Today about 100 dugout homes are still in use. The ambient temperature inside the subterranean dwellings remains at a constant 22 degrees all year round.

But those living underground now face uncertainty after the government terminated their leases in September.

The dugouts are held via licences from the NSW Department of Industry, although residents have for years been attempting to secure freehold titles.

Richard Allen has lived in White Cliffs for eight years and is angry about the lack of information given to residents, calling it a “fiasco”.

“The government was moving towards freehold titles [for the dugouts] and numerous residents had spent money on surveying while we waited for the government to get their act together.”

He said the community had no input into the negotiations. “We had a public meeting displaying the situation, but it was the government telling us what was going to happen to our community rather than a discussion.”

In June 2015, the local Barkandji people succeeded in attaining native title over the White Cliffs area, including the underground homes, complicating the efforts of the dugout residents to secure freehold titles over their homes.

The residents were not notified until last October that their bid for freehold titles had been indefinitely postponed and that some lease licences would be revoked. In the meantime, the Department of Industry is negotiating with the Barkandji people to try to secure occupancy for the residents of the dugout homes.

An NSW Department of Industry lands spokesman said negotiations were “complex” and “sensitive”.

“We are working to secure long-term occupancy, but negotiating is anticipated to take 12-18 months,” he said. “The department is keeping residents informed of progress.”

Enid Black, a resident of White Cliffs for 11 years, said it was a waiting game for residents.

“It doesn’t worry me because I plan to stay here, but it is an issue for other people who want to sell, because they can’t register the transfer,” she said.

While residents are being allowed to remain in their dugout homes during negotiations, Mr Allen said the uncertainty has made life difficult.

“If they had given us the freehold titles, our dugouts would become commodities and assets that could be sold, but now that’s uncertain.”

As published in the Sydney Morning Herald, January 2017. Read the full article here