By Taylah Eastwell
Thousands of Kilsyth residents and business owners have rallied together in a fight to stop the state government selling a much-loved open community space to property developers.
The vacant lot, located at 150 Cambridge Road, was once the home to Pembroke High School’s Kilsyth campus.
The school was demolished in 2013 after Pembroke High underwent an amalgamation with Mooroolbark Tech and later Mount Evelyn Secondary College to form what is now known as Yarra Hills Secondary.
Since the demolition, locals have grown to love the open space, using it to walk their dogs, exercise, for social interaction and general recreation.
A sea of ribbons now lines the boundary to the lot, with community members tying over 2,100 ribbons to the front fence and 130 at the rear to show their support towards retaining the space as open parkland.
Kilsyth local John Phillips has been instrumental in the fight to save the land, beginning by creating a petition that has since received over 7,129 signatures from concerned locals – no small feat for the suburb which was only home to 10,891 residents according to the 2016 Census.
“To the north and west of the site, all the way down to five-ways (Mooroolbark), there are a lot of ovals, sporting clubs, bowling clubs, but there really is no parkland,” Mr Phillips said.
“We’re fighting to have it kept as a passive open space because it is really needed for families and for kids to have somewhere to play and people to exercise,” he said.
“A lot of residents put their hands up to be foot soldiers and door-knocked last summer, rain hail or shine, except for three days – Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Boxing Day. That’s passion,” he said.
A sporting oval at the rear of the site has been retained for community use, with Yarra Ranges Council currently in a 20-year lease with the Department of Education to allow use of the area by sporting clubs.
“When competition sport is on, locals can’t access it. I remember walking to Mooroolbark Station a few years ago and there was a man walking with his two kids who were crying. I asked what’s wrong and he said he’d promised the kids they could have a play down at the oval on the weekend but they couldn’t because the sport was on,” Mr Phillips said.
Janis Floyd, also a Kilsyth resident, said the suburb has seen its fair share of “apartments, subdivisions and units going up” of late.
“And you see the mothers walking their babies on the streets. Elizabeth Bridge Reserve is getting so crowded with all the people moving into the area that they have started bringing down their own tables and chairs,” she said.
According to Ms Floyd, the state government have rezoned the “public asset” ex-school grounds into residential classification to allow for future development.
“The government originally bought it for the school with taxpayer’s money and it became our public asset. And then through a sleight of the hand they rezoned it to neighbourhood residential land so they could sell it. They sold our public asset that our taxes paid for and now we are waiting on a price from the Department of Education and the taxpayers have to pay for it again. Why should we have to buy it again because of a shonky rezoning and rubber stamp,” she said.
The Department of Treasury and Finance, on behalf of the Department of Education, decided to allow expressions of interest from government entities to purchase the land.
Yarra Ranges Council is currently investigating whether it is viable for the council to buy “part or all” of the land after Wailing Ward councillor Len Cox introduced a motion at councils 23 March meeting.
“I don’t very often move a councillor motion like this, its rare and I am moving this one because I feel so strongly about it,” Cr Cox said.
“Walling Ward hasn’t got a lot of passive recreation areas at all. We’ve got plenty of active recreation areas and a number of very good ones, but 60% of the population don’t indulge in active sport, they indulge in passive sport,” he said.
“Rightly or wrongly, we’ve lost a large number of backyards and people, when they want to go for a walk, they can’t do much in the backyard because their isn’t one so they look for a park to walk around in and the only one we’ve really got is Elizabeth Bridge Reserve,” Cr Cox said.
Kilsyth local Shelley Large said council have written to the Department of Education and Education Minister James Merlino and were waiting on a price to consider how much the land might cost before making a decision.
“We’d just like it to be open ground, with grass and trees, a parkland, for people to walk and enjoy and for kids to play,” Ms Large said.
“If they don’t keep some land, we are going to have vertical parks,” Mr Phillips said.
The Star Mail contacted Yarra Ranges Council before deadline but there had been no updates on the future of the site.
It was however recently announced in the Yarra Ranges Council’s 2021-22 Draft Budget that council is considering $638k upgrades to Elizabeth Bridge Reserve, which would include upgrading the infrastructure for sport and social recreation as well as adding temporary changing facilities.
The draft budget is open for feedback at: https://www.yarraranges.vic.gov.au/Council/Latest-news/Draft-Budget-documents-open-for-community-feedback.