Residents of a student hall at the Australian National University faced down bulldozers on Monday in a dramatic standoff with university management that ended in an eleventh-hour injunction.
When students and staff at the independently-run Burgmann College woke to find construction crews bringing down the fencing along its boundaries, they took to the barricades - blockading works with cars and chairs in an all-day "sit in" while college management sought an urgent court order to halt ANU development.
The injunction was granted after 5pm but staff and students vowed to put up tents to keep a vigil in case crews moved in again under cover of darkness.
The temporary fencing was put up just three months earlier after trees were suddenly uprooted within Burgmann's grounds during negotiations with the ANU about nearby development.
Burgmann sits on Commonwealth land leased to the ANU and sublet to the college under a contract extending to 2078, seen by The Canberra Times.
But an ANU spokesman said the boundaries outlined in that sublease, which the university signed in 2005, were wrong. While he could not explain their inclusion, he said they were an error which went unnoticed until now and so had not been rectified earlier.
The fence was erected illegally by Burgmann, he said, but repeated requests for its removal had been ignored.
The university is building about 900 new student beds on the site, which extends beyond Burgmann into its old biology field station. Most trees there have already been felled.
The ANU said the works, including tree removal, had been approved by Commonwealth agency the National Capital Authority.
Burgmann principal Sally Renouf said the college had been negotiating in good faith with the university and even considering giving up land to make way for the ANU's plans - but in exchange for fair compensation, including permission to build a new multi-purpose space.
When the new master plan was unveiled last month, they were shocked to see even more of the college grounds, including its postgraduate wing, marked for "future development" and a new promenade walk cutting straight through the centre - and one building.
The university said these were "indicative concepts only" but stressed the entire campus was invited to take part in the master plan's consultation phase.
"We weren't consulted," Ms Renouf said. "We were blind-sighted. There was one invitation to set up a meeting that never happened. When the plans came out, I thought it was a mistake so I raised it with ANU and suddenly this morning they were telling us our entire sub-lease was invalid, which is not true, and they were taking down the fence immediately to 'reassert their boundaries'."
The principal reacted quickly, parking her car on the boundary edge, and rallying students and staff to hold the line while she scrambled to file for an injunction.
When The Canberra Times visited the site, the crews began to put the fencing back in place. Some workers sat in idling bulldozers just beyond the college boundaries.
Board chair Greg Mills said that while the university's plans to redevelop along Daley Road were outlined in its previous master plan, the new design brought the road much closer.
He said he had asked if the university planned to buy the college, as it had a previously independent college in recent years, but was reassured ANU liked the model as it stood.
An ANU spokesman also ruled out buying Burgmann. When asked if the university was looking to completely void the sublease with the college, he said: "The ANU has simply asked the college to respect the historic boundaries but the College has disregarded these requests ... the college has breached its sublease for reasons that remain completely unclear to the university."
It is understood the university had instead offered the college a chance to "legitimise" its position under a new lease - but without the two areas of land it wanted to develop.
Students said the noise from construction and loss of trees was already impacting on college life alongside the construction site, and Ms Renouf said she was concerned it would impact on resident numbers for next year.
Some of the trees already felled at Burgmann contained possum nesting boxes, second-year science student Alex Taylor said - part of a beloved patch of wilderness used by both students and researchers alike.
"The wildlife have got nowhere to go now," he said. "They didn't even tell us [residents] it was happening."
Instead, college staffer Charlie Rozario says the possums have migrated indoors - sleeping in the stairwells and corridors of the post-graduate units.
"I've lived or worked here since 2016, we've never had possums before they cut the trees down," he said.
Burgmann College is affiliated with the ANU but run by the Anglican Church and a board of 13, including students and staff.
Judy Middlebrook was among the very first cohort to move into the college when it opened in 1971 and joined residents at the blockade on Monday.
She pointed out a spot where the trees had already been ripped from the soil.
"That's where they stood and announced the college was opening in 1969," she said. "That's part of the land ANU wants to take back."
The injunction will lift at 3pm on Tuesday, when both the college and ANU are expected to square off in court. Ms Renouf said she still hoped to come to an agreement with ANU
The NCA did not respond to requests for comment before deadline.