By Melissa Meehan
WILD scenes ensued on the roadside at Garfield last week as VicRoads workers removed illegal road signs against hefty opposition.
And leading the charge was 62-year-old Francesca Ferraro –affectionately known as Nonna – putting herself between the signs and the men charged with taking them down.
The five metre high strawberry sign is being removed as part of a VicRoads cleanup along the highway.
“This is our livelihood,” daughter and co-owner of the Garfield Berry Farm Maria Doherty tries to explain to the man with a bundle of paperwork under his arm.
Their removal was not a complete surprise for Nonna or Maria who have been fighting with the government body since receiving a letter about the signs in April last year.
The pair stepped out to confront workers who came to take away their sign on Thursday afternoon.
“Why are you doing this to us?”
Focus quickly returns to Nonna – visibly upset – as she clutches her chest and gasps for air.
An ambulance is called and as Nonna is walked to the ambulance work resumes on removing the signs and emotions run high.
“You people are disgusting,” a woman screams at the workers.
“This will kill our business and is killing Nonna.”
Bunyip Ward councillor Bill Pearson arrives to settle the situation.
“It is a case of small business being trodden down by bureaucracy,” he told the Gazette.
“All I can do is support these people and I can say without doubt that if they can’t advertise on the roadside they will be forced to close.
“And that is not good enough.”
On Friday both Maria and Nonna, home from a short stay in the emergency ward, are still disillusioned with what happened the previous day.
The doctors tell her to rest and the episode was caused by high blood pressure and her blood sugar levels being high.
Nonna slowly joins us at the table.
Her voice is weak and in broken English she tries to explain how she feels. “Because I am not so good in English it is hard for me to say what I want to say,” she said. “So I get upset.”
As Maria speaks, Nonna’s eyes fill with tears.
“The signs have been here for almost 20 years,” Maria said. “We don’t understand why it’s a problem all of a sudden.”
Sitting on the balcony outside their store it is obvious that without signage the business will be affected – the car park is empty.
It is the Friday before the long weekend, it should be busy.
“If it keeps up like this we can’t survive,” she said. “Which would be horrible – mum has been here since 1978.”
The signs in question sit on raised grassland at the side of the highway, five meters from the roadside.
According to Maria the signs have been judged as a danger to road users with VicRoads telling her it affects visibility on the highway and that is why the signs need to be removed.
“The thing is – it used to be our land – before they acquired it in 1982,” Maria said.
“We just want to be able to let people know where we are.”
Since the signs were taken down Maria knows of at least three incidents over the weekend when customers have driven past the entrance of their business.
“They overshoot the entrance and then reverse down the highway,” she said. “You tell me that’s not more dangerous than having a sign up on the side of the highway.”
Since the signs were taken down Maria has met with Eastern Region Upper House MP Johan Scheffer who says he will investigate what he can do to help.
VicRoads regional director Duncan Elliot said under VicRoads Advertising On, Over and Adjacent to Declared Road Reserve Policy consent must be sought from VicRoads for all signs in the road reserve on arterial roads.
“The signs removed do not comply with this policy,” he said. “VicRoads has received a number of inquiries and complaints regarding signage along the Princes Highway/Freeway corridor. The cumulative impact of the signs acts as a distraction for road users and is a safety concern, and impacts on the general amenity of the area.”
He said landowners were made aware that the signs would be removed in September 2009 and said many of those those taken down in October were subsequently either replaced or reinstalled, unlawfully.
“This has been an ongoing program over the past few months,” he said. “This site was again inspected recently and a further group of signs were marked for removal.”
By Melissa Meehan