Sunday Age article 5th January 2014

For Torquay, growth is a delicate balancing act



January 5, 2014

John Elder

Is it just growing pains or has Torquay gone about as far as it can go? To many locals, the answer is all too clear.

After a series of detonations threw her Sydney life off its well-planned track, Kim Fraser moved to seaside Torquay a year ago with her two young sons.

She had holidayed in the town for 25 years. Some cousins had said to come on down, the water's fine.

Within weeks of opening a ballet school focusing on young children, dozens of students were on her books. By year's end the business had grown five-fold, mirroring the growth of Torquay itself.

''It's hard for me to say if Torquay has hit a wall, as far as development goes, because it's still very new to me and everything seems wonderful,'' she says.

''Most of the people I've met have only been here for six or seven years. And we all love it.'' This is not surprising. Torquay had a static population of 6695 in 2006. By 2011, it was 10,142.

Permanent residents now stand at about 15,000, according to the state government.

Throw in a large Deakin University student population and swarms of holidaymakers during school breaks and summer, and you can see why nervous locals claim the once tiny town regularly has 20,000 lining up for milk and bread at the cramped shopping centre.

Torquay, known for its great swell, is certainly swollen - but is it bursting at its boardshort seams?

Fraser was not aware of these impressive numbers. ''No wonder the old-timers hate us,'' she says. ''I'm not moving out, but I understand how they might be feeling.'' Lesley McQuinn is one of those old-timers. As the treasurer of the once influential Torquay Improvement Association, McQuinn - herself a blow-in 52 years ago from wheat country - campaigned for gas and sewerage to be connected to the town. ''I wrote a lot of letters,'' she says.

The success of the association in bringing infrastructure to the town - founded in 1889 - laid the groundwork for Torquay becoming one of Victoria's fastest-growing towns. ''It's become too big, too commercialised and I don't think there's any stopping it,'' says McQuinn.

''If I want to get a park at the supermarket I have to go down early in the morning or at 7 o'clock at night. It's not the little lovely village that it was. I can accept that. It's inevitable we will continue to grow. But it's the rate of growth that's frightening. We don't have enough infrastructure in place to cope with it.''

The Surf Coast Shire's Sustainable Futures blueprint says there is ''a general acknowledgment'' the population will sit between 25,000 and 30,000 by 2040, in line with the state government's ''expectations''. What worries Torquay residents, more than growth, is the uncertainty and the town's loss of control over its own future.

A year ago, Planning Minister Matthew Guy - after an intense campaign by locals, and to the dismay of developers - granted the Surf Coast Shire permission to wind back the Torquay town boundary of a previous expansion into the pretty and open Spring Creek area by Labor's Justin Madden.

The sigh of relief was short-lived: Guy appointed an independent panel to investigate where development should occur. The panel found that land west of Torquay, extending into the Spring Creek area, was the ''logical next step''.

Last month, the Surf Coast Council voted four to three against the panel's recommendations - and asked Guy to veto any such development, on the basis that Spring Creek is an important fire break in a high-risk area, and the area lacks schools and transport.

Instead of supporting the council, as he had done a year ago, Guy accused some of the councillors, as Labor Party members, of playing politics.

The apparent shifting position of the Planning Minister means the residents are not sure what the future holds for the town. This insecurity was heightened by the scale of an RACV resort to be built against the backdrop of the Torquay and Jan Juc beaches. It was originally approved by the council as a three-storey development. The developers then went to VCAT and secured five storeys.

''It's left Torquay feeling vulnerable,'' says Andrew Cherubin, vice-president of the 3228 Ratepayer's Association and a long-term surfer.

There is a strong nostalgic element to the arguments of keeping the growth of Torquay contained. As one resident noted, ''There's still a lot of hippies living in this town, and people who still see it as the tiny place it once was, and I do wonder at the fairness of my family who were allowed to build not far from Spring Creek, and then not allowing other people in.'' (The resident was the only one who did not want her name used.)

The 3228 Residents Association's secretary, Sue O'Shanassy, says there is not a blanket opposition to growth, just that it should occur on the northern end of town, towards Geelong.

There are large estates already in development just a few minutes north, along the highway. ''The rate of growth that we've seen in the last 12 years isn't sustainable,'' she says. ''You get to the point where the sense of community that we have will be lost.''

She also wonders if the defence against fire of an expanded Torquay will be manageable. Ms O'Shanassy was living in Jan Juc when the Ash Wednesday bushfires occurred and she was evacuated from her home. ''It was decided that Jan Juc would not be defended and the fire would be fought at Spring Creek. Fortunately, there was a wind change when the fire was on the outskirts of town.''

She worries that the five-fold growth in population, the higher tourist numbers and the limited exit points would make evacuating the area difficult in the event of another catastrophic fire. This has been a key argument against development in Spring Creek. ''Every time the temperature goes up I get nervous,'' she says.

An emailed statement from the Country Fire Authority notes: ''The development of Torquay and other places happens with the input of all agencies, local government and state and federal governments. CFA has a program to manage this growth and works closely with local and state governments on these issues.''

But if the town is not sure where that growth is happening and what scale it will take, how can fire-control planning take place with any certainty?