Summerlands – the suburb that penguins reclaimed

As a young kid who spent his spare time flicking through the Melway street directory, there was a place on Phillip Island that always intrigued me – a suburb called ‘Summerlands’, and the mysterious “This area is subject to a Government acquisition program” note alongside.

Melway Edition 22 Map 431 (1993)

Paying a visit to Summerlands

It took me until 2011 to finally visit Summerlands in person.

Bass Coast Shire 'Welcome to Summerlands' sign on the main road

The views were fantastic.

Dirt track that is Solent Ave

But all I found was a ghost town.

Looking down Shanklin Street into Summerland Estate

Gravel tracks leading into the scrub.

Another minor street on the Summerland Estate

And a handful of abandoned houses.

Long afternoon shadows over abandoned furniture

Ready to be demolished.

Second last house to be demolished on the Summerland Estate

So what happened?

Google Maps satellite imagery (2016)

A history of Summerlands

Subdivision of Summerlands commenced in the 1920s with 12 large allotments created, along with features such as a roundabout and cypress trees that were still visible decades later. Between 1927 and 1931, 227 new blocks were created, and from 1929 to 1940 there was a nine-hole golf course on what is now the Penguin Parade car park.

Phillip Island penguin parade, Summerland Beach, 1940
Photo from the Phillip Island and District Historical Society collection

In 1950s, a further 437 blocks were created, and the final subdivisions were carried out in 1958 and 1961 on land closer to The Nobbies. Much of the land was sold to speculators rather than those interested in building on it, and by 1974 only 11 percent of the 986 blocks of land had been cleared or built on.

Phillip Island Nature Parks photo

By the 1970s it was recognised that residential development of the estate would threaten the adjacent penguin colony, but it was not until 1985 that the Victorian Government launched the “Summerland Estate Buy-Back Programme” to purchase all 774 allotments on the Summerland Peninsula and add them to the Phillip Island Nature Park, with a projected end date of 2000. This decision meant that land owners could not build on their land, improve their properties, or sell them to anyone but the Government.

'Phillip Island Sun' July 15, 1985 - 'Summerland residents slam Government decision'

In the years that followed a total of 732 properties were been voluntarily sold by their owners, at a cost to the government of around a million dollars a year.

Phillip Island Nature Parks photo

With the final push made in 2007, when the decision was made to compulsorily acquire the final 42 properties – 20 empty blocks and 22 with houses, held by 34 private owners – over the next three years, at a cost of $15 million.

Bass Coast Planning Scheme – Public Acquisition Overlay at Summerlands Estate as of 23 May 2007

A tour of the last remaining houses

In February 2008 the Google Street View car did the rounds of Summerlands Estate, capturing the last remaining houses.

Classic 1950s fibro beach houses.

1970s brick.

Or looking to have been built just before the 1985 land buyback.

Some were out in the middle of an empty plain.

Others nestled between the tea trees.

Or hidden away completely.

Some looking to be only used at holiday time.

Others looking like they were occupied year round.

With neat front gardens.

But some had already been demolished.

And the end

In 2007-08 five property purchases were settled and agreement to purchase one property was reached, along with six negotiated purchase offers and one offer for compulsory acquisition. In 2008-09 fourteen properties were purchased taking the total number to 25, leaving 17 properties still to be acquired, a process completed in June 2010.

Land Victoria showing Summerlands Estate land still under separate titles as of 13 June 2011

At the time of my 2011 visit, the Summerlands Estate was being returned to nature.

'Penguin habitat rehabilition site' sign

The roads had been closed to vehicles.

Simple chain blocks car access to the former suburb

Few houses remained.

Hiding in the trees - last house standing in the  Summerland Estate

Excavators at work clearing them away.

Excavator parked for the weekend

Leaving behind a front fence.

Front fence to a former beach house


Remains of a front garden for a demolished house

An empty block where houses once stood.

Former home site awaiting revegetation works

Building rubble.

Cleared former home site on St Helens Road

Ready for new tree plantings.

Revegetation works underway at a cleared former home site

Introduced trees has been ringbarked.

Non-native trees ringbarked as part of the revegetation works

Slowly killing them.

Non-native tree dying off beside a former home site

Before their eventual removal.

Clearing non-native trees from a former home site

Power lines were also being removed.

Decommissioned power lines on Solent Avenue

Replaced by new underground wires.

New 'cubicle' power transformers to replace the old overhead lines, waiting installation outside the Penguin Parade

And farewell

I drove past the house on the hill in 2011.

The house atop the hill

By 2013 the only trace left was a plot of freshly planted trees.

Nothing left of the beach house

I wonder how it looks a decade on.

Further reading

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20 Responses to “Summerlands – the suburb that penguins reclaimed”

  1. Dark Knight says:

    Finally getting around to turning a old photo collection into a detailed blog?

    • Jean Verwey (Beveridge) says:

      Our old house, sitting above Summerland Bay, was featured in a photo, uncaptioned but I think above the one marked ‘or hidden away’. We were compulsorily squired after a very drawn out and traumatic and emotionally draining time for those of us passionate about the area, the place and the wildlife. Our house had been built in the late 1940ies with three generations involved. When it was built there were only about 5 others there. I had been going there first to stay in the old guest house, immediately after World War 2, from the age of about 6 or 7.
      The reason the Government spent $1 million a year in the beginning was that it was the full amount of the money allocated to the scheme, and despite many more people being prepared to relocate at the time, the money was capped. At the time there was one person providing the valuations, attached to the government, giving grossly inadequate valuations so that it was impossible to relocate to a similar position on the Island.
      The whole buyback was entirely a necessary one and in the long term would have impacted negatively on the wild life however the process was extremely poor and cruel to those involved and ultimately dragging out over 25 years of limbo.

      • Bijou says:

        We were there every summer in the 1970s & a lot of weekends. We’d ride our bikes to the general store, on the dirt & gravel side roads & in the afternoons we’d swim at Summerland beach. My best friends family owned one of the homes at Summerland that was compulsory acquired. My parents home was compulsory acquired too. They got ripped off by the government. It was beyond stressful for all concerned.

        Back in those days. We would sit quietly at night, and very still with a torch, while some of the little penguins would walk up & around us to go to their hole/burrows. The adults/grown ups were always there to supervise. This was on the beach by Cat Bay (and along the road going up to the Nobbies) and this was in summerlands. We were only a few blocks back from the beach. (Then again things look smaller when you go back as an adult).

        I do remember some of the little penguins getting killed by cars on the side of the road. Which would upset us children.

        We’d walk to the summerlands beach from the sandy car park and we’d see the little penguins in their holes waiting for their parents to come home at night. Nobody disturbed them back then, it was generally more locals and everyone appeared to respect their surroundings. That’s what we were taught as kids.

        We were a few blocks back from Cat Bay. The holiday house was on stilts, like a lot of the holiday homes & permanent residents were back in the late 60s & early 70s. It was the older homes, in the area, that were built on the ground.

        My friends house was still a relatively new home in the early 70s. The side of the house, where the lounge room was, looked up to the Nobbies track. It was exciting during a lightening storm, as it would light up the Nobbies track up the hill etc.

        PI was a different place back then. It was the best part of my childhood. Absolutely without doubt, it was Phillip Island & Summerlands that were idyllic. Some of the kids needed that escape & others just had a great childhood. There was obviously less population & you’d see the surfers catching waves in the early morning (looking at a distance) at Cat Bay.

        I reconnected with the place, as an adult around 2011 & took my husband to see the old home & the neighbourhood. My friends parents old home was actually still standing (surprisingly) but it had an awful feel about it. The whole place felt like a ghost town. Plus the house was ready for demolition as many of the homes in the area, that I remember, had already been demolished. The home & homes – had been compulsory acquired by the government some years back. I think there were one or two homes closer to the highway still hanging in there, with people living there, but it felt abandoned and the place had completely changed. It was like the whole area had been rubbed out. It was definitely like a ghost town. Whereas in the 60s it had been presented as an up & coming area. More choice of swimming surf beaches & the Nobbies etc. so it was a weird turn around in the eighties for the government to be doing compulsory acquisition.
        Many of the holiday home residents had moved from other (older & more established) parts of the island to live in Summerland.

        For many of us kids back then it was a wonderful memory, but became very stressful for the parents later on. Many of the families today still have holiday homes on PI in a different part of the island and those that were permanent residents have settled in other parts of Phillip island too. Then there were some that found the whole thing just so traumatic that they moved completely out of the area. Also important to note that what was paid for the compulsory acquisition and what the cost of re establishing one’s self elsewhere on the island didn’t marry up. This was unfortunately a very common situation with the government in the 70s & 80s around melbourne & Victoria not paying the correct value of the home. Then you find most residents that were relocating ended up out of the area or in a less socio-economic area, than what they had in the beginning. People had worked hard all their life and put their life savings into their homes. Sadly this is all to familiar to me.

        To end on a positive note: Summerland back in those days of the late 60s & 70s was fantastic for children, families & singles to live an uncomplicated and joyful existence. The wildlife and the land around was well respected & enjoyed for its beauty & raw and often rugered appeal.

  2. Andy says:

    Fascinating, great article.

  3. Ross says:

    I can remember being fascinated with the Summerlands estate as a kid in the 80s and 90s due to also noticing that note in the Melways. In fact my interest in the estate was probably greater than my interest in the penguin parade at the time.

    I can remember that there used to be special gates that closed off the roads into the estate at night for everyone except local residents because of concerns that cars would impact the penguins that nested in the area.

    Unfortunately I didn’t carry a camera around with me back in those days!

  4. Stephen says:

    There’s only one, and it’s called ‘Summerland’.
    Not sure why you’ve renamed it.

  5. Jean Verwey says:

    Dear Marcus, your comment that the Ventnor Road has been cut off isn’t entirely true. The road is open to the Nobbies where there are walks and tourist facilities and exhibits, and to the beaches on the side along that peninsula, however, there is a curfew and from evening it is blocked off as visitors go to view the penguin parade.

  6. Aimee says:

    One flaw in the reporting: not “adjacent penguin colony”, the WHOLE of Summerlands was the last remaining habitat of penguins after 8 of the 9 other colonies on the island were wiped out due to development. The motivation for this buy back was driven by conservationists tracking penguin deaths and extrapolating figures from consistent decline in numbers meaning without action penguins on PI would be non-existent by mid 90s. Pretty essential detail and very important conservation messaging around human impact on nature… surprised reporter neglected to even touch that… Could have been a great opportunity for environmental learning and inspiration for the good that can be done for wildlife if humans are less entitled to land.
    Also, they are not “empty plains,” the Summerland “plains” are home to 33,000 Little Penguins now, thanks only to the work of those conservationist (thats approx 18,000 burrows most of which are difficult to identify unless u know what you’re looking for, which means they are now endangered by tourists trampling though these “empty plains” and crushing their eggs, collapsing their burrows and terrorising their chicks). Awareness of environment is important.

  7. […] Summerlands Estate on Phillip Island […]

  8. […] discovered Summerlands Estate of Phillip Island and the mysterious “This area is subject to a Government acquisition program” note alongside as […]

  9. […] Once the site of Summerlands Estate. […]

  10. […] headed out to Phillip Island, to look for the remains of the Summerland Estate. The only trace – a few dirt […]

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