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Sharn Juster likes to look up at the stars at night. From where he lives in Warragul they sparkle with an intensity that cannot be matched 100 kilometres away in Melbourne.
This ''awesome'' star show is just one of the advantages of life in rural Victoria, and something he happily rediscovered when he moved to Warragul from Caulfield nearly two years ago.
I did also live in the city and work in the city for a while and I found it worse spending an hour to drive 10 ks [in the city], than spending an hour to drive 100 ks.
''Apart from having space and clear air, one of the things I worked out that I missed [while living in the city] was being able to see the stars, funnily enough. Growing up I used to always sit out the back and look at the stars,'' he says.
Juster lived in Warragul as a teenager and went to school there but, like many young people from country Victoria, he moved to Melbourne for work when he was in his 20s.
Now he has returned to the town he used to lived in but in reality he has a foot in both camps. Juster, a project manager with ANZ bank in Collins Street, is one of a growing number of people who live in rural or regional Victoria but who commute to Melbourne's CBD or suburbs for work.
On weekdays, Juster arrives at the Warragul railway station in time for the 6.03am train to Melbourne. The service is scheduled to arrive at Richmond at 7.25am, which is where Mr Juster hops off to board a city loop train. He walks up the steps at Parliament station about 7.30am and just a few minutes later is in the office.
It makes for a long day but Juster says the commute isn't a problem. ''I guess growing up in the country, I've had jobs in the past where I've had to drive over an hour to get to where I'm going. I don't mind the ks [kilometres],'' he says.
''I did also live in the city and work in the city for a while and I found it worse spending an hour to drive 10 ks [in the city], than spending an hour to drive 100 ks,'' he says.
Many others share the same view, for when Juster waits on the platform in the morning he is not alone. He says there usually are between 60 and 80 people at Warragul station and a similar number at nearby Drouin commuting to Melbourne.
He estimates that ''probably a few hundred'' people live in Warragul and commute to Melbourne's CBD for work. The (early) morning train, he says, is getting busier.
It is not surprising that the young father - who lives with his wife and one-year-old daughter in a four-bedroom home on the edge of town - is noticing a rise in the number of rail commuters.
Baw Baw Shire, home to Warragul and Drouin and smaller towns such as Trafalgar, is one of Victoria's fastest growing shires outside Melbourne. According to the shire's ''Settlement Management Plan'', which maps out a path for growth over the next quarter century, in the five years to 2011 the shire population grew by an annual average of 2.89 per cent.
ABS figures show that in the same period country Victoria's total population grew by a much slower 0.6 per cent a year.
The Settlement Management Plan - which will go to a council vote tomorrow night - examines where and how new residents should be housed and what services and infrastructure they will need.
The shire's population is forecast to reach almost 72,000 by 2036, up from 42,864 in 2011. But under a ''high-growth'' scenario it would be home to 100,000 people in 2036. Warragul, the biggest town, is predicted to more than double its population to 28,152 residents in 2036, up from 13,081 in 2011. Drouin is projected to almost double in size and house 16,765 people in 2036.
The management plan comes as the municipality is undergoing major change. Improvements in the Princes Freeway and the rail connection to Melbourne make commuting to the city and its suburbs for work a realistic option. Cheaper land and cheaper house prices - including for brand-new houses - are also luring residents who want to live in a rural setting away from the suburbs.
According to Baw Baw chief executive Helen Anstis, the suburbs of Melbourne are the main driver of the shire's population growth, although some new residents have come from overseas, interstate and elsewhere in Victoria.
''We know that there's a fair amount of movement where people had sold their metropolitan Melbourne house through the height of the real estate boom and they were able to pay off a mortgage and a house in Warragul or Drouin or somewhere else. So they were able to get the lifestyle they were looking for,'' she says.
These include new residents who have come from Melbourne's south-eastern fringe who have moved further out in search of a rural environment like the one they used to live in, before their neighbourhood became a suburb.
Baw Baw's location, nestled between Melbourne's sprawling edge to the west and Latrobe City to the east, makes it a viable option for people happy to travel in either direction to work. The booming outer Melbourne suburbs of Pakenham and Berwick are within 45 minutes of Warragul by car - and less from Drouin - while the factories and other major employers in Dandenong are less than an hour away by car.
"We are referred to as a peri-urban council [adjacent to an urban area]. And we're peri-urban, not just to the regional city of La Trobe [home to Traralgon and Morwell], but also to greater Melbourne. So we're in that commuter belt,'' Anstis says.
The shire's challenge now is to match the projected population growth with the provision of housing, community services and employment opportunities that meet the needs of a growing population while retaining the rural character that people were attracted to in the first place.
Anstis says while some degree of commuting is inevitable it is important for any region to have a sustainable level of industry and employment opportunities. ''We don't want to be a dormitory town, [a place] where people live but go away for work,'' she says.
''We don't want to be just growing houses. We want to be growing our population in a sustainable manner, while still growing businesses.''
At the same time as Sharn Juster travels to Melbourne for work, Drouin resident Leigh Gordon also heads in the same direction. But unlike Juster, Gordon travels by car on a ''reasonably light'' freeway. The 44-year-old father of two is a manager with a steel company in Dandenong.
He moved to Drouin with his wife Sue about 10 weeks ago, swapping the outer eastern fringe suburb of Montrose for a West Gippsland town. Gordon reckons the morning drive to work is about 40 kilometres further than from his old home, but at 45 minutes is only about five to 10 minutes longer than his former morning commute. ''For probably 11 of the past 13 years I travelled to Sunshine from Montrose, so I'm used to it,'' he says. ''It used to take me over an hour-and-a-half to get home. So a 50-minute drive is nothing.''
Gordon, who bought a seven-year-old home on a 4000-square-metre block, was attracted by the quiet rural landscape, the affordability of the houses and proximity to work. ''I actually enjoy the drive home, because I know when I get home it's nice and peaceful,'' he says. ''You look out over the hills and people have cows. A lot of people have chooks.''
Gordon is aware that the area is growing fast. ''That doesn't bother us, because with that will come further infrastructure,'' he says. But he believes the growth needs to be properly managed. The picturesque rural landscapes that have attracted so many new residents must be preserved.
''I think the serenity and the actual landscape, and still having the rolling hills with the livestock, are obviously critical components. You don't want to lose that rural feel.''
The surging residential development in the shire is obvious. A large billboard on the side of the freeway between Melbourne and Drouin is one of the first visible signs of growth as you travel to the district. It promotes the ''Waterford Rise'' development in Warragul and announces its 27 display homes are now open. Further down the road another billboard promotes the ''Jackson's View'' development in Drouin.
As a local passenger bus pulls up outside the Warragul railway station late in the day, the advertisement emblazoned on it is hard to miss - ''Flat Land Selling Now. Chesterfield Park Warragul''.
While the new housing estates in the district are the key signs of growth, the local construction industry also has plans for more than just new homes. Work is expected to start next month on a multi-storey development in Warragul that developer Brett Neilson describes as ''the biggest development in Warragul's history''.
The project includes a 47-room motel complex, retail outlets, family restaurant, medical and corporate offices and seven apartments, the first to be built in Warragul.
''I think it will show the strength of Warragul and the commitment for investors and businesses alike. It is proposed to be a huge growth area, and it's going to need infrastructure projects similar to this to be able to sustain the residential growth,'' Neilson says.
''People won't come to the town if there aren't certain criteria or certain facilities on offer, and the town needs to move forward to be able to sustain the growth in the residential market.''
During the design stage Neilson says he didn't get a lot of support for his plan to put apartments in the centre of Warragul.
''But as it stands it was incredibly easy to sell them. They've all been sold off the plan,'' he says.
Sharn Juster did not buy one of the apartments, but believes they would have been a good investment. However, buying an older house in Warragul meant the family could keep the unit in Caulfield they lived in.
And the move has given them more room to grow.
''I grew up around Wangaratta and my wife grew up around Numurkah,'' he says. ''We both wanted our children to grow up in a country setting - and to have at least enough space so that we could grow a vegie garden and have pets.''
Darren Gray is rural affairs editor.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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