Road rage

Looking out over a wind-cut blue lake washing into a crisp green lawn, Petrina Prowse is happily taking in the views on one of her neighbour’s properties in the rural locality of Elgin, 170 kilometres south of Perth. As her neighbour Jim Smith listens in to the conversation, she remarks how pleasant it is to have a visitor.

“You’re the first person to come out here and look for yourself.”

Although seemingly innocent, the statement is politically charged. Many local residents have wanted a person to see their properties are not just ‘degraded farmland’ suitable for a proposed four-lane freeway, but are full of flora and fauna which are at risk if a road goes ahead. It is an offer they have made to many people living only a few hundred metres away. Yet they claim it has fallen on deaf ears. It is emblematic of a division where dialogue with the other side is almost non-existent.

For the past three years, the residents of Gelorup and Elgin on Bunbury’s southern outskirts have been locked in a battle. They are fighting both the state government and each other to stop the Bunbury Outer Ring Road going through their communities. Two separate routes are on the cards. One spares Elgin, the other spares Gelorup. Now with the Environmental Protection Authority approving the Gelorup route, the battle may be coming to a bitter end.

The conditions for this battle were laid decades earlier with a seemingly innocuous planning decision. In the 1970s, a road corridor for a future Bunbury bypass road was reserved in the rural area of Gelorup, 11 kms south of Bunbury. But by the early 1990s, subdivisions had resulted in an influx of families to the area

Helen Oostryck and her dog at her Gelorup property
Sniffing for an alternative: Gelorup resident Helen Oostryck wants another route chosen. Photo: Sean Van Der Wielen.

Having relocated from Perth to raise their children and seeking a balance between seclusion and access to Bunbury, Helen Oostryck and her husband Rob began looking at properties in Gelorup in 1992. Before they bought, they went around the area and chatted to the locals.

“One person we stopped and talked to told us about the road,” Oostryck says. “He lived a bit further away and he told us he was happy there because he was quite a long way from the road and we said “what road are you talking about?”.”

Afterwards, they went to the Department of Town Planning office in Perth. “They showed us the maps. We were told it would probably never happen because the dual carriage with Bussell Highway had just gone through, so this would be obsolete. It would never go through.” Trusting the advice, they bought a property just opposite the road corridor.

Then in 1995, the Court government decided the road was necessary. With a proposed expansion of the Beenup mine set to increase truck flow to Bunbury Port, the proposed road would divert heavy traffic away from residential areas. Locals were called to a meeting where Main Roads explained the potential options. It was short lived: the mine expansion fell through and the state government lacked the funding to push it ahead. Oostryck was confident it was the end of the story. “We were pretty much told that, even by Main Roads.”

Yet the corridor continued to be designated as a future road route. Development continued for the next 20 years near the road corridor. Many residents purchased their homes assuming the road would not go through.

Jim Smith decided not to take the chance. Looking for some acreage, he was inspecting a property in Gelorup 20 years ago when he became aware of the nearby road corridor. 

“Walking down to the back, I asked [the agent] “what’s this bit of bush?”, he says.

“He told me it was a road reserve and I said ‘ah, they’re going to build a road here’. The agent said ‘they’re never going to build a road here’, but I said ‘it’s a road reserve isn’t it, for a future road?”.

He decided to purchase a property in the nearby generational farming community of Elgin. Although a route through the community had been considered in 1995, most did not consider a road redirection to be an option.

Elgin farmer Jim Smith, pictured with his grandson Max, in front of the lake on his property.
Elgin farmer Jim Smith (pictured with grandson Max) purchased his property to avoid the Ring Road. Photo: Sean Van Der Wielen.

For 23 years, progress on the road stalled. Then came an announcement 3,000 kilometres away. In his final budget speech as Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison announced the federal government had put $680 million towards the Bunbury Outer Ring Road. With Bunbury’s population having doubled in 20 years and more growth projected, the McGowan government jumped at the opportunity to turn its plans into reality. 

Terri Sharp and Debbie Lim stand next to a large tree on Lim's property
Leading the fight: Friends of Gelorup Corridor members Terri Sharp and Debbie Lim. Photo: Sean Van Der Wielen.

Within months, panic ensued across both communities. In Gelorup, Main Roads representatives were going house to house offering to buy the homes of those living directly next to the corridor. Debbie Lim is a member of the Friends of Gelorup Corridor, the community group spearheading the alternative route campaign. She was having a glass of wine with her neighbours when the impact hit home. 

“One of our residents came over in tears with a letter from Main Roads saying they were going to purchase her house so the road could go through the back of her property. She was totally unaware of that.” 

That’s not the case, according to Main Roads.

“During project development, a review of historical information provided to the public was conducted and found no evidence of suggesting the BORR would not be built,” a spokesperson says.

“[Our] community consultation program during development was extensive and ensured community needs were considered and met as appropriate. A number of design amendments were made as a result of community input.”

At the same time, Elgin residents were discovering another possible route may go through their properties. Main Roads had to formulate an alternative route as the local populations of the endangered Western Ringtail Possum and Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo meant the Gelorup route might be blocked on environmental grounds. 

Local resident Petrina Prowse had already heard rumours circulating about a potential alternative route when her family decided to investigate. “My husband Anthony went to Main Roads and asked ‘is this a possibility?’. Within the next 24 hours, they had asked us if they could come out for a meeting,” she says.

When they arrived, their fears were confirmed. Sitting at their kitchen table, Main Roads staff rolled out a map. A thick green line was plotted to show the investigative corridor. “Smack bang underneath it” was their home. 

“It was confronting, upsetting,” Prowse says. “It just turned our world upside down basically right there.” Three proposed alternative routes were drawn up within the green corridor. Some would destroy homes. Some would destroy wetlands. All would cut certain properties in half.

Petrina Prowse stands with the lake on her property in the background
Unexpected snare: Elgin resident Petrina Prowse did not know a road was potentially planned for her property. Photo: Sean Van Der Wielen.

To add to the dismay, the two-lane road proposed in 1995 has grown to a potential four-lane freeway. The ramifications on both sides have been intense.

“There’s been divorces over it,” Lim says. “There’s been lots of mental health issues. There’s been people who feel they can’t cope with the whole situation.” It is the same story on the Elgin side. Smith, who helped coordinate the community group campaigning against the alternative route, says seeing the stress others were under only increased everyone’s anxiety. “I had great concerns about some of the other people. So mentally it definitely did affect us all.” 

Prowse perhaps best describes the impact on the community: “Every meal at the table was a discussion about the BORR.”

Arguably the biggest impact of the Bunbury Outer Ring Road has been the division it has caused. Alongside accusations of foul play, each side disputes the other’s concerns. The main battleground is the environment, where both sides are steadfast in the belief their local route is more ecologically sensitive. 

Friends of Gelorup Corridor member Terri Sharp believes the importance of the location of the corridor is evident just from walking through the area and seeing some of the trees. 

“Massive girths of over five metres,” she says. “Forty metres plus height. Gnarly, whizen hollows. It takes a long time to get to that level. You can’t say a few saplings behind green plastic are ever going to replace that probably in three or four lifetimes.”

  • Two trees create a natural frame in the Gelorup road corridor
  • Fallen branches create a fame for the grasslands of the Gelorup road corridor
  • Looking up at a large Marri tree in the Gelorup road corridor
  • Two types of wildflowers bloom in the Gelorup corridor
  • A mob of Kangaroos stare at the distrubance in the Gelorup road corridor
  • A "tree island" separates two sandy paths in the Gelorup road corridor

Sharp and other local residents have registered numerous trees within the corridor’s footprint as being significant. This includes Australia’s largest paperbark tree, the two largest Christmas trees and the largest woody pear tree. A giant jarrah tree is already protected under Main Road’s plans. Some Elgin residents dispute these claims. Smith says he has found a bigger paperbark tree on his property.

“I’d accept them finding one tree there,” Smith says. “The chance of it being the biggest tree in the world in that small area, very unlikely. The likelihood of two trees being the biggest in the world in that area, even more unlikely.” Main Roads’ latest report states only the two Christmas trees would be felled.

The residents of both Gelorup and Elgin say routes through their communities would impact local populations of the endangered Black Striped Minnow. The disturbance of acid sulfate soils could increase the potential environmental damage, and the pollution of aquifers and local water sources is a possibility, they say.

  • A large amount of native bushland remains on Jim Smith's property, located within the Elgin road corridor
  • Low lying ferns overlook the lake on Jim Smith's property
  • Swans are not an uncommon sight on Jim Smith's lake.
  • Wildflowers among the ferns at Jim Smith's property
  • Among the paperbark trees on Petrina Prowse's property.

Each has used different tactics to get their points across. The Gelorup camp has made numerous requests to Premier Mark McGowan, Environment Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson and Transport Minister Rita Saffioti to visit Gelorup to demonstrate the environmental significance of the corridor. All attempts have been unsuccessful.

The Elgin camp is focusing more on changing minds locally. The members have made numerous offers to Gelorup residents to come see their properties to demonstrate their environmental significance. They claim no one has accepted their offers.

The project has left the community polarised. “We didn’t talk,” Smith says. “We’ve all become enemies.”

Video: Friends of Gelorup Corridor members Debbie Lim and Terri Sharp, and Elgin resident Petrina Prowse describe the surprising benefit of their fights against the Bunbury Outer Ring Road.

Now the final battle is underway. After a nearly year-long process, the EPA has handed down its final environmental assessment on the Gelorup route. Despite a record 1000 submissions, the authority approved the route on October 25. This aligns with Main Roads’ announcement from last year that it would not be proceeding with the Elgin route. 

The environmental assessment report found a number of their concerns with the route could be mitigated through the conditions imposed on the project, including the requirement for vegetation offsets.

For the Gelorup camp, it is an unpleasant but not unexpected decision. The Friends of Gelorup Corridor have spent months war-gaming the responses they were experiencing from the EPA, and will launch an appeal to the state Environment Minister. The Conservation Council of WA has already announced its intention to follow suit. However, Gelorup locals are also relying on continued grassroots resistance. “Hopefully the community will rally again and support the appeal,” Lim says.

A letter signed by the group, the Shire of Capel, the WA Conservation Group, the WA Wildflower Society and the Greater Bunbury Elders Group has been sent to Sir David Attenborough and other key environmental figures in an effort to garner support. 

No matter what happens, someone is going to lose. Most of the people interviewed for this story say they never would have bought their properties if they had known then what they do now. But some did know it was a possibility. As the possibility turns into reality, Debbie Lim warns the final stand will be ugly.

“I think there will be people who will be there when the bulldozers come.”