Bushfire properties to remain off limits

If eligible landowners wish to sell, the government will buy properties destroyed in the 2009 bushfires.BUSHFIRE-HIT properties bought under the state government’s voluntary bushfire buyback scheme will never be able to be lived in again, with several hundred properties across fire-hit communities expected to qualify for the program.

If eligible landowners wish to sell, the government will buy properties destroyed in the 2009 bushfires at whichever value is highest – the pre-bushfire price, or the current market price – under the terms of the voluntary buyback scheme to be unveiled today.

To be eligible to sell to the government, landowners must have lost their principal place of residence in the bushfires of early 2009, and must not have commenced rebuilding a new home on the property.

Also, landholders must not have on their burnt property a suitable home site that is more than 100 metres away from forest vegetation. There will be no income or assets test.

Deputy Premier and Bushfire Response Minister Peter Ryan stressed that it would be an ”entirely voluntary scheme. That’s been lost on a lot of people, who’ve got visions of the government marching up to the front gate and demanding the keys and the title,” he said.

Today’s announcement comes nearly 15 months after the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission recommended the creation of a ”non-compulsory acquisition” program. It called for the program as part of ”a retreat and resettlement strategy for existing developments in areas of unacceptably high bushfire risk”.

The recommendation caused a political row last year and was backed by the Coalition when in opposition but rejected by the Brumby government, which claimed it could de-populate high-risk towns, increase the number of vacant blocks and increase the fire risk.

The Baillieu government has committed $50 million for the buyback, but in an interview with The Age Mr Ryan confirmed that more money would be made available if required. Five million dollars has been allocated this financial year.

”If your land qualifies we will make you an offer. If you want to sell, we will make you an offer,” Mr Ryan said.

”We are not sure [of the number of eligible properties], but it will be several hundred. It will be probably, I’d say, somewhere more than 500 prospectively. But we are simply not sure,” he said.

”I anticipate there will be a strong response to this, because for those people who have found themselves in the nether land of what are they to do, they will, I think, see the prospect of being able to bring things to a conclusion by being able to access this scheme,” he said.

The Victorian bushfires of January and February 2009 destroyed 2133 houses, damaged many others and claimed 173 lives. On many occasions the royal commission heard accounts of people who attempted to defend a well-prepared property and failed.

”Many of the 173 people who died as a result of the fires had been trying to defend their home, a number of which had been prepared in accordance with CFA advice. These results demonstrate that where people live, the standard of the buildings in which they live, how those standards are maintained and, therefore, planning and building controls are crucial factors affecting safety in a bushfire,” the commission said.

Mr Ryan said ”Any of the allotments we buy, they will never again be granted a building permit for residential use.”

A former deputy premier, Pat McNamara, will head a panel to oversee the scheme and management of acquired properties. Some of the land bought back could become a permanent part of the public estate, while in some cases adjoining owners may be able to buy properties.

Information sessions about the program will be held in coming weeks in 13 locations including Kinglake, Marysville, Churchill and Strathewen. The precise terms of the scheme will be finalised after the meetings are completed.

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