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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17 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.

  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.

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