It was a slow beginning for Jane Goffman as she morphed from behind-the-scenes professional to community advocate and public defender.
When the switch came, it was sudden.
She was thrust into the public spotlight when her patience with the ACT's planning process reached its limit in late 2010 in response to a proposal to build medium-density units near her family house in Dickson.
Yes, the NIMBY syndrome, but this time, with a difference.
Her passion, combined with that of her neighbours – and throw in the professional skills you find lurking in any Canberra suburb – was the key to a significant outcome.
She led her community to a victory that has ramifications for the major development planned for the Dickson shopping centre.
Goffman has lived all over the world but she and her husband have picked Canberra as the best place to live, after arriving here in 1992.
"With time I've come to value the legacy of Walter Burley Griffin and his clever wife Marion very much more than I did when we first moved here from Hobart," she says.
She is an urban and regional planning consultant, principal of Active Planning and convener of the Dickson Residents Group.
Her story about a dreaded "DA" will resonate with anyone who has watched, perhaps helplessly, while the neighbour's house is demolished and a cluster of townhouses is built on the block.
Goffman says a house around the corner from her family home sold six or seven years ago. "We didn't even notice a 'for sale' sign," she says.
"When the house right next to it sold to the same buyer, we didn't know that either. Why should we?
"When one of our neighbours mentioned a DA sign had gone up, in 2010, I was surprised. I remembering thinking that people were ringing alarm bells without adequate information but I promised to have a look at the plans and check what was going on."
The first set of plans showed 12 townhouses on two extra large north-facing blocks, with the driveway running around the perimeter.
Goffman was concerned. She checked the zoning and contacted the Planning Institute.
"I knew which codes to read and how to measure plot ratios, so I did the numbers, found they were over, and lodged a written objection," she says.
"I honestly thought that was that. I was sure that two or three pages were perfectly sufficient to show that the DA was non-compliant and out of character and couldn't possibly be approved without changes."
So she was surprised when, about three months later, soon after Christmas, an elderly widow knocked on the door to show a letter she'd received about the proposed development, immediately next door to her house.
"For me that was when the Marsden Street debacle truly began," Goffman says. "My first feeling was a mix of anger and disbelief. How could a planning authority fail to notify all the original objectors when they knew we had expressed an interest and had third party appeal rights?
"And why would they allow a developer with non-compliant plans to get away with notifying an amendment when most people were either off somewhere for summer holidays or busy looking after kids?
"Getting upset wasn't going to help, so once I'd calmed down, I asked myself what I could realistically do to ensure a sensible decision. I made the time, sat down with the new plans, and went over it all carefully.
"By the time I was done I knew for certain there were serious problems, so I met up with a bunch of people who lived around the corner and the Dickson Residents Group began."
The developer had amended the proposal, to build 10 units with a central T-shaped driveway.
The group letterboxed the neighbourhood to bring as many people as possible up to speed.
The day before the period for comments ended, Goffman organised residents to park around the site to show the likely impact and put the video of the crowded street on YouTube.
"In the end, more than 130 people lodged objections, so we felt confident the Planning and Land Authority would pay attention," she says.
"If only that were true. Instead, a few months later we received the formal notice that the DA had been approved.
"By then I wasn't angry any more – I felt resigned and defeated.
"I couldn't keep spending this much time opposing a shoddy development, and I certainly couldn't justify taking time away from my family to work on an appeal. If someone wanted to pay me, I'd consider it.
"But then another elderly pensioner knocked on my door and begged me to help him stop it, and for three nights I lay awake debating whether I could manage it and whether it was the right thing to do or not.
"Finally, I realised that there really was no choice except to fight it – because why would I choose a profession, train for seven years, work in the NSW Land and Environment Court for three years, as a volunteer for the Planning Institute for another seven years, and then walk the other way when I knew my neighbours were about to be steamrolled?
"These people had a right to live next door to something decent, and the people who moved in to whatever it was had a right to live in something decent.
"The rules were clear – I'd trusted the planning officers to read the objections carefully, know the rules and follow them, but someone ignored the information in front of them and real people who'd done nothing wrong would suffer.
"If the proposal was built without being changed, it would create a domino effect, pushing many adjoining neighbours to sell and triggering wholesale redevelopment to a far higher density than the zone was intended for or had the infrastructure to cope with."
Goffman printed the plans, called a meeting and explained the implications.
"We formed a residents' committee, lodged joint party appeals, hunted for other people with the skills we needed and started working," she says.
An important milestone was finding an excellent barrister willing to help pro bono.
Members of the group attended a mediation session run by the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal where the proceedings are confidential.
"So I can't tell you anything about what happened on the day, but I can tell you that we went in with a clear strategy and by the time the eight of us walked out we were in high spirits," she says.
"We felt like we'd just been to a soccer match and the score was 10-0. We knew we had a very strong case and could demonstrate that.
"However, tactically, some would say we made our biggest error. As a result of mediation, the other side now knew the basis for our case and was better able to hire the best barristers, the best consultants, to defeat us in a [subsequent] hearing.
"But that's actually not the point – this is not a game, this is a city. Piece by piece, we make it and we make it together.
"The community has a role to play, in articulating what it would most like to see and in expressing concern about the things it doesn't want and explaining why. Without the community in the equation, we wouldn't have modern urban planning or democracy at all."
In the leafy suburb live people with expert skills in architecture, planning, engineering and law.
"We had those skills and were determined not to let our neighbours down."
Just before the hearing in the tribunal, the developer revised the plans again.
"This was done with the benefit of seeing our barrister's statement of facts and contentions and my statement of evidence but the major failings remained and in the end they lost," Goffman says.
The fight was incredibly stressful, imposing a high emotional burden on the group.
"But in the end the tribunal was fair, we got a proper hearing, we made a strong case, we got the decision that we went there to get, and we banded together – as a community, we grew."
The story ended well.
A year later, the developer came back with yet another new plan, for six units: four duplex units at the front, similar to two-storey duplexes all over Canberra, and two slightly larger three-bedroom townhouses at the rear.
The developer must have expected Goffman to check the plans very, very carefully. She did and she was happy.
"Everything stacked up – all the units were adaptable, capable of being lived in by an older person with mobility issues," she says.
"All the units had decent areas of private open space with ample sunlight in winter. All the garages were able to get cars in and out safely and there were enough car spaces for residents and visitors.
"I wrote a letter of support congratulating the developer and suggesting they do just one more thing – build a good new timber fence around the entire boundary so all the neighbours wouldn't have to worry about that and it would end up looking better."
And that's what is being built now in Marsden Street: six good quality units and a new fence where there used to be just two small rather rundown houses on big blocks with zero energy efficiency ratings.
They will be close enough for the residents to stroll to the Dickson shops, restaurants, pool, community centre, health centre, post office and library.
"We're glad to welcome new neighbours, because this community understands that change will happen and embraces it," Goffman says.
"All we're asking is that it be done as well as it should be, that it conforms to all the rules and objectives of the zone and delivers good quality housing for the future."
Now the Dickson Residents Group is directing its considerable resources to the planned redevelopment of the local shopping centre, where a seven-storey residential and retail complex, including two supermarkets, is proposed for the current Woolworths carpark.
Small businesses are worried their trade will suffer when parking is lost during the construction.
"This major development on a key gateway site encroaches on the mandatory heritage buffer surrounding Dickson Library, is contrary to the Dickson Master Plan that the government took three years to prepare, will generate massive traffic and parking and safety and mobility issues while dominating and overshadowing the sunny public spaces that attract older people to sit in them in winter, often waiting for the library to open or while waiting for their appointment," Goffman says.
The initial plan was to knock down 27 trees near the Dickson pool to construct a "temporary" car park.
After reports in this newspaper, it appears that option has been shelved, in favour of using the now vacant former ACTTAB site as a temporary car park.
Goffman is enthusiastic about the amendments but is waiting to see exactly what they consist of and work out what it all means. "We're here for the long haul, and we're determined to get this stuff right."