Buybacks and tough sells

Buybacks and tough sells

14 August 2010

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Australia —  It looks like any other pocket of bush high up on Mount Dandenong’s steep western slope. Bracken and tree ferns reach up from the grassy forest floor. Several trees have fallen on the hill heading up to the houses of Ferny Creek. Towering above is a sea of tall eucalypts, trunks blackened by fire.

The fallen trees are no obstacle to Peter Button, who weaves over and around them as he heads towards a couple of flat spots further up the mountain. ”You see those cream bricks? That’s it,” he says.

The scattering of broken bricks on the slope confirms that the fit 77-year-old grandfather is in the right spot. He is standing in the middle of the first property he bought in the early 1960s, a place where he and his young wife and children lived for a few years in a new brick-veneer house.

But by the late 1960s Button and his family were effectively squeezed out. Shortly afterwards their house went too, knocked down by a bulldozer. Both gave way to an official policy that aimed to remove houses from areas of extreme bushfire risk on the mountain.

The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission has renewed interest in such thinking with its recommendation that the government establish a buyback scheme to reduce the threat to people from bushfires.

The ”retreat and resettlement strategy for existing developments in areas of unacceptably high bushfire risk” has been one of the commission’s most controversial recommendations. Consequently it has been one of the most talked about during 24 community consultations held during the past couple of weeks as the government tries to determine its response to eight of the commission’s 67 recommendations; it has already backed the other 59, at least in principle.

When East Warburton residents gathered in their local hall on Tuesday night to discuss the buyback and other commission findings, they were joined by a number of others including police officers, Deputy Premier Rob Hulls, local state MP Tammy Lobato, Justice Department officials and representatives from organisations such as Parks Victoria, the Building Commission and Yarra Ranges Council.

Grant Morris was one of about 65 people in the hall that night. Reflecting on the meeting at his home later that evening, the East Warburton local says his community is very concerned about the threat of bushfires.

Morris supports the buyback recommendation. ”I think the main reason is because my belief is that home security is the core of a healthy community,” he says. ”Having a home, somewhere to be, somewhere you can go back to, somewhere you feel safe at night is the core to well-being for our community.

”And if people are frightened of living in a home because of bushfire danger, then I think it’s a responsibility of the whole community – which means the government at large – to do what is possible to alleviate their fears. And that’s why I believe [for] some people, the only way you do it is by buying back their properties, by giving them a chance to live somewhere else.”

He believes some people would take up a buyback offer, but says the group of eight on his table that night put a number of qualifications on any scheme, saying it must pay landholders a fair price and should be voluntary.

(The latter is in fact in line with the commission’s recommendation that in extremely high-risk areas the state ”develop and implement” a ”scheme for non-compulsory acquisition” of existing developments.)

At the same meeting, Yarra Valley resident Rick Houlihan spoke strongly against the buyback.

”I moved up here, I know the fire risk,” he said. ”I moved up here because I loved the area. I still love the area. All my life savings are tied up in this valley and I would not move for anything. So even if they did say, ‘We are going to acquire your property,’ I would fight it.”

Yarra Ranges mayor Len Cox was not at the East Warburton meeting but has attended others held to discuss the commission’s report. Cox says the buyback proposal ”isn’t creating a lot of friction and isn’t creating a lot of concern”, but there is a strong feeling that it should not be compulsory.

He supports the recommendation. ”I think it could be beneficial actually to the bush. There’s areas where, honestly, I don’t believe people should live.

”I honestly think – and where they’re on steep slopes – that some of those places can be dangerous to live in and it would actually be best to be bought back. And in this area, if possible, added to the Dandenong Ranges National Park,” he says.

Over in Olinda, in a packed hall on Monday night, 150 people were caught up in spirited debate on the same topics. Although the Dandenongs were largely spared on Black Saturday, many residents are deeply concerned about future threats.

Many have qualms about buybacks. Greg Carrick, 50, of Mount Evelyn, said they had a bad record of not realising property value, giving the planned Footscray Rail Project as an example. Many people had deep roots in the community and they should be adequately compensated, he said.

Jane Morgan, of Olinda, could see benefits in the idea for her own family. ”They [the authorities] have said that we are in the most dangerous area in the hills, on the western side of the hill, and ours is the most dangerous street, Range Road,” she said. ”And our house is in the worst position, at the end of the street surrounded by forest.”

There was general concern that even if isolated properties were incorporated into existing forest, lack of maintenance could make them an even greater fire risk than before. Many speakers also expressed concern about the Dandenongs’ winding narrow roads making evacuation almost impossible.

Back on the hillside where his home once stood, Peter Button stands with his hands in his pockets, one foot either side of the old concrete footings.

Forty-five years ago he would have been standing in his front doorway. Today, he is inside the Dandenong Ranges National Park. It’s a peaceful and beautiful place but much has changed. The neighbours have gone; they too were bought out by the government. And the uninterrupted view the Buttons once had of the city has gone too, grown out by the tall eucalypts.

”The lounge room window overlooked Melbourne … you could see the bay … It was beautiful. Of course, this is why I didn’t want to go from there,” he says.

Some of the gravel from the curved driveway that led to a double garage remains, as does a sturdy piece of half-buried metal pipe that Button recalls was a part of his tank system. All that is left of the walls of the house are dozens of small pieces of broken bricks.

It’s the first time he has been back here in 40 years. He has walked through the Mount Dandenong winter chill and showers to show his old property to The Age, to see if it has been kept clean by the authorities (which it has) and to discuss what is likely to happen to families when governments talk about buying back land.

The coverage of this issue has revived Button’s memories of a fight that lasted for years and caused him ”phenomenal” stress.

”I was trying to create a career for myself. I was virtually forced to join the council and be a councillor, and spend half my time looking at council matters.

”I had a growing family and the stress just about brought me to my knees. I did lose a job over it; I had to restart my career because of the stress. And that stress backlashed on me again years later,” he says.

But more than 40 years after selling his much-loved bush property to the government, he concedes that the commission’s recommendation makes some sense. ”I can see that a lot of these areas are very treacherous to live in and they should never have been allowed to be subdivided for residential [lots],” he says. ”And there should have been proper fire buffers put in and there should have been money to maintain those fire buffers.”

While Button was living in the Ferny Creek property, it was hit once by bushfire. He recalls driving home along Outlook Road (now known as Outlook Track) as fire burnt on both sides of the road. He found that fire had come right up to the walls on three sides of his house, but to his great relief it was still standing.

”The idea of acquiring properties in fire-prone areas is good,” he says now. ”I think they need to be classified, though, into zones. The Triple A being the most dangerous, and the Triple D being the least. And the ones at the top of that list they need to compulsorily acquire and do something about the whole of that area, and do it at the one time.

”But meantime, they’ve got to have a proper policy and a set of rules and guidelines and procedures in place for how it will be done. And how people’s fears and objections will be met.

”I think the lesson could be learnt. I’ve talked to people who had [their] land acquired for freeways, and they were happy with their deal,” he says.

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