The Vidovich family has been based in the Wattleup area for more than 40 years, after patriarch Brian put down the family’s roots in the market garden culture in the area.
Residents knew their neighbours as family.
“It was the type of place where you could go and ask for a cup of milk, and someone would help you out,” Kelly Vidovich said.
“We loved the rural atmosphere, it was like being on a farm while only being a few minutes from the city.
“It was flourishing. You had all your bits and pieces going on, the town site was packed to the brim, they had the school and everything there.”
The family initially ran a market garden on their property, but later transitioned the business into a turf farm.
Kelly and her siblings went to nearby school South Coogee, and until 2000, revelled in their own little slice of country life.
Neighbour Jim Wade was no different.
“It was the three S’s,” he jokes.
“The school, the sea, and the shops, is what my wife said. I’ve been farming all my life and I didn’t want neighbours breathing down my neck, so we bought five-and-a-half acres here.”
Jim moved to the area in the 1980s with his father – JJ Wade, one of the last surviving World War II veterans from the garrison known as the Rats of Tobruk.
It was supposed to be a quiet place for the Wades to settle, and keep their connection with farming.
“It was still a rural area without being too far from the three S’s. The property that I’m on was a market garden when I bought it, but I never did any of that. I just wanted it for the space, and it’s a nice quiet place close to the city.
“For the price I paid I could have gone over and bought a couple of houses in Booragoon at the time … but I wanted the area because sometimes you just don’t want a neighbour next door.”
Eva Ricci moved to Wattleup for the same reason.
Her family bought land in 1974, and agreed to subdivide the property so Eva and her husband Ivan could create a home for themselves and remain close to their family while they raised their children.
“We lived on there since our marriage in the 80s,” she said.
“We had no intention of going anywhere else. It was quiet, and we were all good neighbours.
“We were there looking after my Mum and Dad … even though we were in a rural area, we had a village that was helping us raise our family. We had really good neighbours, and we had rescue animals.”
Eva’s sprawling four-acre property is reminiscent of a cottage in the South West, with beautifully maintained gardens and close to neighbouring properties.
A skeleton of itself: the road to Latitude 32
The semi-rural idyll was first disrupted when a 1997 discussion paper flagged the idea for “Latitude 32”.
The proposal wanted to turn the Wattleup land into an industrial hub between the inner harbour and outer harbour – and to do that, the government needed to move the 4500 residents who were then living in the townsite.
“To be developed over 30 years, Latitude 32, in the Hope Valley/Wattleup area, 27km south of Perth will be driven by market demand and will be a significant driving force for the Western Australian economy,” a project statement reads.
“Part of both the City of Cockburn and the City of Kwinana, it is anticipated it will create up to 10,000 jobs and be home to hundreds of businesses.”
Families who had put down their roots years ago were suddenly sitting up straight: their ‘country’ life was under threat.
Brian Vidovich, Kelly’s father, was one of the first residents to read the discussion paper and understand how the plan would change the face of Wattleup.
“I think one of the local real estate guys heard something that there was some sort of study being released to determine to what they were going to do about the land,” he said.
“There was just under 1500 hectares of land they were talking about.
“From then we started to just talk to each other, and we tried to respond with more than just a single voice.
“We decided to see how many people would be interested in forming a group.”
The Kwinana Air Buffer Zone group was established, and they mounted two professional submissions on why residents thought the whole area should not go industrial.
“But yeah, that was water under the bridge at that point,” Mr Vidovich said.
“We stood up and we didn’t get noticed, but with these sorts of things, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
For some time, there was hope the Wattleup community would dodge the economic and social disaster it was feared Latitude 32 would bring, but Brian had difficulty rallying some residents who didn’t believe the government would turf them.
“Dad is fairly intelligent, and he was reading the proposal,” Kelly said.
“He just thought ‘Wow, this is actually going to happen’.
“A lot of the people surrounding us and in the township said ‘No, the government can’t do this, it’s unfair. There’s no way it can get passed’.
“But it obviously got passed.”
After Latitude 32 was officially tabled as a planning document, Brian became a pillar for the Wattleup community and with his calm and diplomatic demeanour, an unofficial liaison with Landcorp.
Parliamentary members for both Kwinana and Cockburn were inundated with letters and phone calls from unhappy residents, and in 1997, member for Cockburn Bill Thomas brought up the concerns of his electorate in parliament.
“I draw to [Mr Kierath’s] attention to the extreme concern it is causing in the electorate,” he said.
“It is creating uncertainty about the future and insecurity for the people residing in that area … obviously it is a most unfortunate situation for people who have built a house in that suburb to suddenly find that a discussion paper [that] describes their area as one whose future is to be determined.”
But the Court government in 2000 went ahead and tabled the planning documents and rezoned the area from semi-rural to light industrial when the Hope Valley-Wattleup Redevelopment Act was first introduced to parliament.
Eighteen years later, what was supposed to be a 30-year development, is still yet to get past the planning stage.
‘A bloke’s suicided over this, you know’
The two townsites were deserted, market gardens were ripped from the earth, the school was knocked down. By all accounts, there was a mass exodus from Wattleup.
From more than 4500 people to just 475 residents, those stuck in the new industrial zone were forced to stay and watch as their beloved suburb was reduced to rubble.
Unable to sell due to the rezoning – Landcorp had no funding allocated to buy them out – they couldn’t develop their homes due to a clause in the Act that imposed a $55,000 penalty on anyone who tried.
“We were good citizens,” Eva said.
“We were in the volunteer fire brigade; I worked on the P&C for 20 years. We did everything for our community and we were such a strong community base. Just to be kicked in the guts like a mongrel dog.
“A bloke’s suicided over this you know.
“I feel like we’ve been forgotten, I feel like we’ve been ripped off. I have no faith. I’ve lost faith in humanity from that process.
“They’ve forgot the human face of this, and they didn’t treat hardship as hardship.”
Three years ago the then-member for Kwinana – now WA Health Minister – Roger Cook, stood up in parliament.
The development had been plagued with delays, the planning processes were “extraordinarily unusual” and the locals were living in limbo, he said.
Any person walking down Stock Road could see the skeleton of Wattleup. It was enforced urban deconstruction, and those who couldn’t afford to move were enduring the slow death of the suburb they once called home.
“The development of Latitude 32 has not been a happy experience for the people of Hope Valley and
Wattleup,” Mr Cook said.
Jim echoes Mr Cook.
“You’re tied up to a place with no future,” he said.
“I’m still working. I should have retired. I’m 66 and I’ll be 67 in September. I would have been out of [the workforce] 10 years ago.
“If I could have sold the place back then, I would have. But I’m stuck here.”
As Kelly drives through the remains of the town site and parks her four-wheel-drive next to a pile of rubbish bordering her old netball courts, she laughs at a dilapidated Latitude 32 sign standing on the flattened school site.
“Welcome to Wattleup.”
Stay tuned for part two of Fairfax Media’s investigation into Wattleup, Latitude 32, and where to from here.
More to come.