By Cam Lucadou-Wells
Proposed heritage laws have given new hope to residents and Greater Dandenong Council campaigning to save a historic church in Keysborough.
The council is in “ongoing discussions” with the Uniting Church, which owns the 144-year-old Keysborough Methodist Church at 176 Chapel Road.
The striking Gothic-style building with coloured stained-glass windows and shingle roof is a rare remnant of the area’s 19th-century history.
It stands unused and markedly deteriorated next to a towering housing estate to the south and a proposed sub-division to the north.
On 2 February, the State Government announced a heritage Bill to protect historic properties from unlawful demolition and neglect.
The proposed laws would allow the Government to step in when a historic building is unlawfully demolished or – perhaps crucially in the Keysborough church case – allowed to fall into disrepair.
Owners charged with unlawful demolition could be banned from developing the site for up to 10 years.
Gaye Guest, who is part of a community campaign to save the church, said the laws “give hope to some of our historical buildings which need to be looked after, nurtured and cared for”.
“Too often we hear about wonderful examples of past architecture falling into disrepair through neglect or through ‘lack of funds’.”
“As we move towards urbanisation , we need reminders of our past and Keysborough Uniting Church is certainly a symbol of hope.”
Just 70 heritage listed markers and buildings remain in the entire Greater Dandenong municipality, Ms Guest said.
“Stories and photos can capture some of our history but nothing can replace the ‘real thing’.
“When you visit these well-preserved historical sites and buildings you become immersed in the spiritual vibe of the dwelling or site, even significant trees and artefacts are a joy to observe and ponder over.”
Greater Dandenong city planning director Jody Bosman said the “most welcome” news “addresses a long standing weakness in the current planning provisions”.
“Greater Dandenong Council congratulates the Minister on this important step.
“There are a number of buildings in the City of Greater Dandenong which are covered by a heritage overlay and it is hoped that this announcement now gives greater certainty to the future of those buildings.”
Although listed as significant in Greater Dandenong’s heritage study, the council has been effectively powerless to compel the Uniting Church to preserve the building.
Heritage overlay protections were only triggered when development or demolition was proposed, Mr Bosman said last year.
“Unfortunately (the council) can’t direct owners to protect structures from decay.”
Mr Bosman said it would be clearer how the laws would impact on the church issue “once more detail of the proposed legislation is known”.
“Council officers are in ongoing discussions with representatives of the Uniting Church to explore the restoration and protection of the old church building.”
Planning Minister Richard Wynne said the laws would “remove the financial incentive to illegally demolish by stopping development on the land for up to 10 years”.
“We’re sending a clear message to those developers who do the wrong thing – there are real consequences for wilfully destroying our precious heritage.”
“Fines shouldn’t just be the cost of doing business. Preventing those who illegally demolish our heritage from redeveloping means they can no longer reap windfall gains from selling or rebuilding on their land.”
Last year, a Uniting Church spokesperson told Star Journal that the building was “unsafe” and “neither used or needed” by its congregation.
“(The) building itself has no formal heritage standing.
“In its current state it has been deemed unsafe and would require a significant amount of money spent on it to change that status.
“The local congregation and the Presbytery of Port Philip East continue to look at options for the future of the site.”