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‘It got pretty toxic’: Bayside is bitterly divided over value of heritage homes

“I appreciate some people like it, it might look like it comes out of Hansel and Gretel. The kids across the road at Brighton Grammar refer to it as the witch’s house because it looks like something out of a fairy tale,” Ms Pothitos said.

The Esme Johnston House.

The Esme Johnston House.Credit:Eddie Jim

“But I’ll be perfectly blunt, we did not buy this house because we liked it.”

After saving for eight years – “my husband and I don’t come from money” – the couple last year lodged plans with Bayside Council to demolish the house and build two townhouses. One was to be for them and their children and the other for Ms Pothitos’ elderly parents.

But the application sparked a campaign, backed by the National Trust, to save the idiosyncratic 91-year-old house, which was designed by a woman – journalist Esme Johnston – something “almost unheard of in the 1920s”.

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The Esme Johnston house on the cover of Home Beautiful in 1931.

The Esme Johnston house on the cover of Home Beautiful in 1931.

While the Heritage Council found the house did not warrant state protection, Planning Minister Richard Wynne placed an interim heritage order on the property. A panel next month will decide whether it should be permanently protected.

Meanwhile, on June 10, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal refused a permit to demolish the Esme Johnston house and build two townhouses.

“The decision has extinguished our dream and destroyed our lives,” Ms Pothitos said. “And for what? So that people walking past the house can remark that it looks like something out of Hansel and Gretel? It seems ironic that when it comes to heritage at the local level, a house can be more important than the lives of the people who own it.”

The Esme Johnston house illustrates the often fraught debate over how to balance the rights of property owners with the desire to preserve heritage buildings for the common good.

It’s a debate that has been especially polemical in the affluent City of Bayside, where the council has twice abandoned heritage studies over the past 20 years following an outcry from locals.

The last time it blew up was just two years ago. The council had written to 51 Beaumaris and Black Rock residents, telling them their mid-century modern homes would be covered by an interim heritage order until a heritage study was completed.

“All hell broke loose,” says Bayside Mayor Clarke Martin.

Some locals championed the heritage protection, others worried about the impact on property values and their ability to renovate and sell their homes.

Residents on opposing sides hurled abuse at each other in the streets. Once a security guard had to intervene at a council meeting.

“It got pretty toxic,” says Cr Martin. “I’ve been on the council for four years and this has been one of the most divisive issues.”

The heritage study would have identified the best examples of the inter-war and post-war period, with a planning scheme amendment prepared to permanently protect them.

But eventually the council abandoned it and said residents could nominate their own properties for heritage protection if they wished to do so.

Eight post-war buildings in Beaumaris and Black Rock nominated by home owners and 11 council-owned buildings were recommended for protection.

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However the National Trust and Beaumaris Modern – a community association which has fought doggedly to preserve mid-century architecture – accuses the council of abrogating its responsibility to ensure the conservation of places of heritage significance.

They point to last month’s demolition of two post-war homes – the award-winning Breedon House, designed by architect Geoffrey Woodfall, in Brighton and a mid-century home in Nautilus Street, Beaumaris, designed by architect Charles Bricknell.

The award-winning Breedon House in Brighton

The award-winning Breedon House in BrightonCredit:Bruxton Real Estate 

A third modernist home – The Abrahams House on Beach Road, Beaumaris – will also be lost after VCAT this month granted a permit for two townhouses to be built on the site.

“We have probably lost hundreds of significant houses throughout Bayside over the past 20 years – it’s just tragic,” says Beaumaris Modern founder Fiona Austin.

In 1956 the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects wrote in a guide published for the Olympic Games that Beaumaris had the “greatest concentration of interesting houses in the metropolitan area”.

Ms Austin, an interior designer, says mid century modern houses – which are characterised by open plan spaces, floor to ceiling windows, simplicity and integration with nature – now sell for more than if the block of land was sold as a development site.

Beaumaris Modern founder Fiona Austin in front of the Abrahams House in Beaumaris.

Beaumaris Modern founder Fiona Austin in front of the Abrahams House in Beaumaris.Credit:Simon Schluter

“That wasn’t the case five years ago, but it is certainly the case now. Agents in Beaumaris have waiting lists for people who want mid century modern homes.”

She believes the division in the community was driven by an anti-heritage group who letter-boxed residents, claiming that people would not be able to renovate their homes or even build a fence, paint their house or replace gutters if there was a heritage overlay.

“There was a lie campaign that frightened elderly people,” Ms Austin says.

However several mid century modern home owners told The Age their voices were being drowned out by “zealots”.

“This has been a really horrible journey on a whole lot of levels,” says one man, who asked not to be named because his wife had been abused on the street.

The man, whose house had been earmarked for heritage protection in 2018, believes it would decrease the value of his property, which was his only asset beyond his super.

He worries he would have to spend more to hire a heritage architect for any renovations. “If I wanted to put solar panels on my roof, I would not be allowed to put them on in a way that would change the external appearance.”

“I want the same rights as my neighbour – it’s not fair if I lose them because someone takes a shine to my house.”

Cr Martin empathises with the concerns. “The argument that property owners should not have to end up paying for the public to enjoy Victorian heritage is a valid one,” he says. “In my opinion it is a dilemma.”

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However Cr Martin said Mr Wynne had written to the council warning that its compromise position inviting homeowners to nominate their own properties was “not appropriate to protect places of heritage significance”.

On Tuesday, the council will vote on whether to resume the heritage study abandoned in 2018.

“The minister … has written to council reminding us of our duty under state planning laws to undertake heritage studies,” Cr Martin says. “All 79 councils are requested to do this work.”

However this time Cr Clarke says he will not support an interim heritage overlay while the study is being conducted.

“As properties, objects and artefacts age, their heritage value can change,” Cr Martin says. The Victorian planning minister ultimately has the duty to make decisions on this. Councils are to administer the process.”

Felicity Watson, the executive manager of advocacy at the National Trust, says a heritage study and subsequent planning scheme amendment would provide certainty for home owners and buyers.

She says everyone would be able to have their say at an independent planning panel before a recommendation was made to the minister.

Felicity Watson, from the National Trust, campaigned to save the Esme Johnston house.

Felicity Watson, from the National Trust, campaigned to save the Esme Johnston house.Credit:Eddie Jim

“When looking at the the protection of properties you need to consider the broader community benefit and not just the impacts on the individual homeowner,” Ms Watson says.

“What it comes down to is that we have these laws in place because as a state we have made a decision that it is important to protect the legacy of our past.”

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