'Like winning lotto': how dam bungle made millionaires
SOME of Australia's luckiest homeowners live in the picturesque Mary Valley.
There, in southeast Queensland, accidental millionaires exist courtesy of a bungle that handed them stunning parcels of land at a fraction of their value.
One of those couples is Lawrence and Susan Watford, who told news.com.au it was "like winning lotto" - and they're not wrong.
Three years ago, the pair bought five acres of land two hours north of Brisbane.
They built their dream home and opened a profitable commercial kitchen and cafe, and now the parcel is back on the market for $1.4 million.
They didn't buy it for anywhere near that price. In fact, they only spent $400,000.
It all comes down to a huge infrastructure project that never got off the ground.
In 2006, the Queensland Government proposed the $2 billion Traveston Crossing Dam, and set about acquiring some 464 properties in the area.
The controversial proposal was designed to secure water for Brisbane after a long drought, which saw much of the state's southeast receive record-low rain.
"I would say upwards of a third of the valley would have gone under," said Andrew Saunders, Tourism Development Manager from Destination Gympie Region.
However, the project was scrapped in 2009 - and hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of properties began hitting the real estate market, dirt cheap.
The state and federal governments spent three years squabbling about the particulars, leaving furious landowners in limbo while plans were chopped and changed.
Eventually the proposal was quashed by former federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett, due to the "unacceptable" impact on nationally threatened species.
The government began selling chunks of the 13,000-hectare tract, and oversupply forced prices so low the resales only recovered half of the $500 million it spent.
"A lot of the properties here are beautiful properties. The government came and spent $10-15 million for some pieces of land, and then the owners stayed on paying a nominal rental fee for a number of years, and recently those people bought the properties back from the government for about $5 million," Andrew said.
He explained that while many residents bought back their land on the cheap, others took the money and ran, leaving a number of properties up for grabs.
Lawrence and Susan looked at almost 40 lots before settling on their sun-drenched acreage just outside the town of Imbil, with a population of 600.
The Mary Valley is the kind of place where fat cows graze in the rolling green hills, dogs loll happily in the backs of utes, and if you're lucky you might spot a platypus floating in the crystal clear waters of Yabba Creek.
It's 40 minutes from the Sunshine Coast and the glamorous beach hub of Noosa, and the folks living there know they've got a good deal.
"It's a fabulous property," Lawrence told news.com.au.
He and Susan moved to Queensland from Victoria, and planned to spend their time travelling around in a caravan and managing hotels and motels until Lawrence developed some serious health problems.
He had major heart surgery and was kept in a medically-induced coma for almost a week. It was six months before he could drive again - let alone tow a caravan.
The couple decided to sell and start looking for a block of land to call home.
Their idyllic cafe, The Packing Shed, came about as a kind of happy accident.
"The idea was to grow produce to sell sauces and chutneys," said Lawrence.
He explained he's always liked cooking, and he's been making his grandmother's rum and pumpkin chutney for about as long as he can remember.
Back in Victoria, he made all his products at home, selling them at markets and wineries, but Queensland regulations required he use a commercial kitchen.
"It was horrendously expensive, so we started making some coffees as well, and it's gone from there," he said, gesturing to the cafe with a laugh.
These days, Lawrence makes the sauces, Susan makes the cakes, and they employ a mustachioed chef called Roger to whip up tasty country meals.
"It's the love of our life. We're really proud of ourselves, because the transition of the property has been enormous over the past two years. It's been a lot of work."
Sadly, further health complications are now forcing the couple to sell.
They bought 30 acres in 2004, right before the dam was proposed.
The official plans went through a number of nerve-racking iterations, at one point bringing the high water mark as close as the property next door.
"It really broke down the community bond between neighbour and neighbour. One neighbour would get a price for his land and next door wouldn't get as much. It sort of started an infighting," Tony told news.com.au.
"People weren't doing much with the land in the meantime, it became really weed-infested and overgrown. A lot of places were broken into and trashed, and people didn't care like you would if it was your block of dirt."
He said they were "over the moon" when the project failed.
Tony and Tanya built their own home, and now run a small B & B called Melawondi Spring Retreat, with two tranquil cabins aimed at couples on romantic getaways.
The hill at the top of their property is the perfect vantage point to watch the sunset, and it's not unusual to see kangaroos snacking on their manicured lawn at dusk.
They grow their own vegetables and fruit, and Tanya often whips up dinner using ingredients freshly picked from the garden.
"The lifestyle is pretty good," Tony acknowledged.
Andrew Saunders said there are many stories like these.
"People are now coming back to the valley who want to live here, and now primary produce is starting again, local business is being supported," he said.
"It's taken until recently for the valley to really find itself again."