Riddled with termites, but ripe for heritage protection

FROM THE footpath, Camilla Cottage looks pretty enough, a Victorian-era farmhouse hidden behind an overgrown tangle of roses and ivy.

FROM THE footpath, Camilla Cottage looks pretty enough, a Victorian-era farmhouse hidden behind an overgrown tangle of roses and ivy.

It's only when pensioner Camilla Groves opens the front door that the extent of the rot becomes clear. Termites' nests hang from her wardrobe and mound under the bed. Beyond the open walkway that links the front rooms to the shack that houses the kitchen and the bathroom, the timber boards have fallen from the walls. There's no plaster, no insulation and in many rooms no lighting. Even on a 20-degree sunny Sunday afternoon, it is damp, dark and cold inside. Twice divorced and decades estranged from her two children, Ms Groves lives alone in what she frankly describes as squalor with her two dogs, Chihuahua Peppi and bitzer Dasha.

At 71, Ms Groves hopes to sell her property to a developer in the hopes of raising enough money to pay off her debts and build a unit where she can live out her old age in some basic comfort.

But three years ago, her home was identified by the Murrindindi Shire's heritage study as a place of local significance, dating back to the early 1870s, shortly after the town lost the name of Muddy Creek. It has been recommended for heritage protection.

The possibility that Ms Groves's cottage may soon be subject to heritage overlay has scared off any potential buyers, Ms Groves says. She wants her house removed from heritage consideration now so she can raise the money she needs for her final years.

"I don't know if I'll survive another winter here," Ms Groves said. She doesn't have enough money to raise the bond for a retirement village and despite her arthritis, osteoporosis and depression, she's not yet frail enough to be considered for any of the local nursing homes all of which have long waiting lists.

For the past three years, she's been paying off a $32,000 reverse mortgage she took out to pay off her credit card debts, medical bills and roofing repairs.

"I've been eating those black-and-gold boxes of dim sims, 20 to a box," she says. "And baked beans, you can get two meals out of them."

The rising popularity of Yea as a tourist destination has seen median house prices reach $326,000 this year. But local real estate agent Deb Robinson of RT Edgar says Ms Groves would be lucky to see $170,000 for her property, with the possibility of a heritage protection order. Even without the heritage overlay, the quarter-acre block on the main road would fetch perhaps $220,000.

Local ward councillor Sally Abbott Smith defended the heritage proposals for the cottage, noting that "it is a significant building in need of protection" and that only the front two rooms were heritage protected. "It doesn't mean you can't build on the land." Much of Yea's High Street is already protected by heritage overlay, Cr Abbott Smith said, "and we need that to be kept for the good of everyone".

The unrenovated cottage was run-down when Ms Groves and her ex-partner bought it in 1984 for $32,000, but when the partner left two years later, Ms Groves had no money to restore it. A former state ward, Ms Groves spent most of her adult life struggling with violent relationships and a drinking problem. She shows The Age a clipping from The Truth from 1949, when her mother was fined #10 for beating Ms Groves unconscious with a shoe. "We hated bath time," she said. "If we didn't hold our head the right way, she'd drown us. She wasn't right in the head."

For the past 17 years, she's found a home in Yea, she says. She gave up drinking when her last partner left. She joined the garden club. She put down roots, literally and figuratively. But now she's angry and despairing.

"I feel bullied all over again," she says. "They get the final say when it all boils down to it."

Council officers have been to see Ms Groves and assess the state of her home.

A statement released by the council said that "the heritage overlay will not be applied without further consultation and having regard to the integrity of the building structure and its heritage significance".

The heritage study is expected to go out for public consultation in September.

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