“It felt like North Korea to me, it felt very controlling,” says Dr Mark Glazebrook from Friends of Lake Knox Sanctuary.
“We all said we can’t be part of a working group when the very thing we are trying to retain can’t be discussed. And we are not going to be gagged from speaking to the media.”
Locals wanting the lake to be saved have tied blue ribbons to the fence surrounding the site, which has no public access.
Development Victoria acquired 19.2 hectares of land in Knoxfield, including Lake Knox, when the former horticultural research facility on the site was decommissioned.
Its group head of property, Neil Anderson, says Development Victoria has been engaging with local community groups since late 2018.
“The wetlands working group was not supported by some community members so we are now investigating a community reference group to help shape the development.”
Mr Anderson says the site is set to become a “vibrant new community”, with a range of housing and an “improved” wetland area that will provide an “enhanced habitat” for the blue-billed duck.
“This wetland will replace the man-made dam on the site, which is unsafe,” Mr Anderson said.
But some locals are sceptical, saying engineering solutions could be found to address Development Victoria’s concerns that the lake was structurally unsound and had steep banks.
“The agenda from my perspective is they want to maximise space for housing,” says Dr Glazebrook.
“I would rather the government be honest with us and tell us exactly why they want to fill it in, rather than a half-baked excuse that doesn’t stack up.”
In 2017 ecologist Dr Graeme Lorimer said losing the dam and its vegetation would mean losing the habitat for all the dependent fauna, including blue-billed ducks.
“It would take some years for a new water body to provide similar habitat value,” he said in a report to Knox City Council.
Dr Lorimer recommended that as little as possible of the dam be removed, although he said the banks needed to be given more gradual gradients.
Almost 12,000 people have signed a petition calling on the state government to save Lake Knox from being filled in.
“There’s no good reason why the lake can’t stay,” says First Friends of Dandenong Creek president Anthony Bigelow. “We’ve had Development Victoria come in and trying to railroad the process. It’s pretty appalling to be honest.”
The issue has also attracted opprobrium across the political divide.
Nick Wakeling, the Liberal MP for Ferntree Gully, called on Premier Daniel Andrews to halt the process and ensure there was proper community consultation before a decision was made on the lake.
And crossbencher Rod Barton, the upper house member for the Eastern Metropolitan Region, said he was concerned community plans had been “gazumped in this fast track process”.
Friends of Lake Knox Sanctuary point to Blackburn Lake, a dumping ground for old cars in the 1950s and 1960s that was regenerated by local residents and community groups.
Today Blackburn Lake Sanctuary is home to local wildlife including Pacific black ducks, herons, possums and sugar gliders.
“We are looking for the same vision,” says Dr Glazebrook.
“We support the idea of new housing but we want to retain the environmental aspect of this site.
“This fight is far from over – we have people promising to lie in front of bulldozers. I don’t think Development Victoria appreciate how much people feel about it.”
Jewel Topsfield is Melbourne Editor of The Age.
Benjamin is a state political reporter