Rockfall work stance upsets hill residents

LOIS CAIRNS
Last updated 05:00 04/12/2012

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Red-zoned Port Hills residents battling to stay in their homes are bitterly disappointed by a city council report that rejects putting public funding into private rockfall protection work.

A group of Port Hills residents has been lobbying Christchurch City Council for months to pay some of the costs of installing fences or bunds to protect their hillside homes from further rockfalls. They had hoped the protection works would allow them to stay in their red-zone houses.

The group argued that the council should pay because some of the rocks that posed a hazard to their properties originated on council land.

It says it would be more cost-effective to finance the protection work than it would be for the Government to buy out their properties.

But a report prepared for Thursday's council meeting is recommending against contributing any council funding towards the cost of private rockfall mitigation work. It also says council land should not be used for such purposes.

Even though the homes are red-zoned, and Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee has ruled out any changes, council staff were obliged to prepare such a report because councillors asked for it.

The report acknowledges that though funding, in whole or part, rockfall protection work could bring financial savings to the council and help families stay in their properties, it also brings considerable risks.

In particular staff are worried that:

It will set a precedent in which council contributes public funds to mitigate risk on private land.

Landowners may not have the financial capability to maintain and repair the structures in the future and the council could end up burdened with that cost or caught in the middle of disputes over costs.

The council could be held liable if the rockfall protection measures fail.

Most council-owned land on which rockfall fences or bunds could be sited is recreational reserve land. As such the council's ability to use it for mitigation works benefiting private landowners is severely constrained, staff say.

Avoca Valley homeowner Tony Ging said the council's focus seemed to be on reducing its liability rather than on saving ratepayers' money or helping people stay in their homes.

All the geotechnical advice suggested that rockfall protection work could mitigate the risk to property owners to an acceptable level but both the council and the Government seemed unwilling to go down that path.

"This option has no risk to the council, most cost to the ratepayer and the worst possible outcome for the homeowner."

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The release of the council's report comes just days after Cabinet papers were provided to The Press under the Official Information Act that showed Brownlee rejected advice from senior officials that protecting rockfall-threatened Christchurch properties was practical and could save millions of dollars.

Instead, 443 properties were written off at a projected cost of $275 million, of which the council is paying $57.9m.

Brownlee has said that decision was made because he was not prepared to burden city ratepayers or taxpayers with the continuing cost and liability of protection measures.

Ging and other Port Hill residents will make a last-ditch attempt to convince councillors they should contribute to rockfall protection costs on Thursday.

- The Press

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