More than 14,000 people signed a petition opposing a jail at Kembla Grange, but when Alen Meza added his name to the list, he was pinning his hopes and dreams on success.
Mr Meza and wife Jess bought land a short distance from the proposed jail site, at Wongawilli, with plans of building a house and starting a family there.
When the jail proposal was announced on April 9, it killed all their excitement for their new home, Mr Meza said. “We’d settled on the land; we’d already signed a contract, then we had this looming over our heads.”
“We had to make choices about our house design and interior design and things like that. But it was really hard to feel too excited, knowing a jail would be built just down the road and we’d be driving past it every day and we’d be raising kids near it.”
The Mezas were among future residents who met at the proposed development site on Friday to celebrate, as the government announced it had scrapped the proposal.
Sipping Moet and hugging friends and allies made after five months spent campaigning together, Mr Meza said he had felt a weight lift with the news.
“It came out of the blue – we’re in shock – but it’s definitely very welcome.”
“Now that it’s canned, it’s off our shoulders.”
Minister for Corrections David Elliott said on Friday the proposal had been shelved after “extensive feasibility studies” found that, while about half the land was suitable for development, the site lacked a single block of adequate space for a prison facility, making it too expensive to build on.
Another future Wongawilli resident, Mary Marciano, said she believed a combination of people power and more tangible road blocks – the presence of a cemetery and environmental zones, and improper zoning – had led to the government’s decision.
“I’m very, very excited, however this proposal should never have happened in the first place,” she said. “We told the government from the beginning that this wasn’t suitable land.”
Ami Beck, who co-founded the Residents against Dapto Jail group after learning the jail would be built across from her future home, welcomed Friday’s decision.
Earlier this month Ms Beck announced she would stand at Wollongong’s Ward 3 byelection on November 24. She confirmed on Friday she still intended to run, citing the West Dapto masterplan as her top priority.
She paid tribute to the “community spirit” that had powered the “no” campaign, and to group backer, Shellharbour MP Anna Watson .
Ms Watson said: “I think this has to be one of the best days in my political career, to see my community come together like this”.