Port Hills homes condemned

MARC GREENHILL
Last updated 05:00 03/12/2012

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Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee rejected advice from senior officials that protecting rockfall-threatened Christchurch properties was practical and could save millions of dollars, documents reveal.

Last week the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) made public dozens of Government Cabinet papers relating to Port Hills zoning decisions, where 443 properties were written off at a projected cost of $275 million. Homeowners were told protective measures were too costly and time-consuming, and that safety could not be guaranteed.

However, the Cabinet papers revealed Brownlee dismissed recommendations from senior Cera advisers that individual mitigation be explored and joint funding discussed with the city council.

Brownlee said last night he was not prepared to burden city ratepayers or taxpayers with the continuing cost and liability for protection measures. "The Christchurch City Council were very much involved and it was pretty clear they didn't want to put that sort of burden on the rating base. I'm not blaming them, it's a Government decision and we decided not to progress that," he said.

Port Hills MP Ruth Dyson said the decision "beggars belief" and could not be justified. "The Cera officials said: ‘This is cost-effective, can be done in a timely way, this is going to save the Government money, it will protect the houses to an acceptable level of risk - would you like us to write up the details to take to Cabinet?' And [Brownlee] said no," she said.

The September report, written two months after the first Port Hills zoning announcements, said that while the case for large-scale mitigation had proved "weaker" than first thought, localised solutions "may well be desirable".

The Cera report suggested:

- Small-scale mitigation would allow property owners who wished to stay in their homes to do so.

- If costs were shared between the landowner, Crown and council, "all parties would benefit".

- The Crown/council pay 50 per cent of the capital costs of mediation work up to 50 per cent of the relevant red-zone offer. Maintenance costs were to be met by the landowner.

- "Front-footing" the mitigation issue by announcing a framework for the protective measures.

- Fast-tracking the process to ensure proposals could be considered before red-zone offers expired next August.

"There would be a saving to the Crown if - as is suggested - any financial contribution were to be less than the red zone offer," the report said. Any savings would be "relatively small", it said.

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There were risks involved. They included:

- Arguments of equity from those on the flat section of Christchurch who received no offer of assistance to mitigate.

- Offering "false hope" to those whose properties may not be able to be remediated.

- Adding to the list of "ongoing issues" the council has to manage, especially that structures comply and continue to be maintained.

- The potential for "confusion and inconsistency" by announcing individual mitigation was not an option while at the same time announcing the red-zoning of Bridle Path Rd and Horotane Valley.

The report said the risks were not considered "unmanageable" but were "real nonetheless".

Brownlee said the number of properties that could be protected was "very small".

"There'll be people who will say, ‘that's rubbish, you don't have to do anything. You just leave [the structures] there and they'll last for years'. Well, no-one's stepped up with any guarantees."

The Government's decision not to fund mitigation work did not prevent individual landowners appealing against the council's section 124 notices, he said.

Sumner resident Phil Elmey, a structural engineer who formed a group of homeowners disputing their red zoning, urged Brownlee to reconsider individual mitigation as an option.

The Press reported in October that geotechnical firm Geovert advised Cera area-wide rockfall protection was "realistic and achievable" on 95 per cent of the Port Hills. Geovert's view echoed a second report by New Zealand geotech firm Maccaferri.

CERA' s CASE

MAY 8

A report recommended a $10 million rockfall protection pilot to be split between the council and the Crown. The pilot area was most likely to be Avoca Valley because it presented a "favourable comparison" between the cost and effectiveness of fences compared with the capital value of the affected properties.

"We said, ‘let's have a look at that' but the more that Cera got into the technical discussions about how you actually achieve it, the less convinced they became about the merits of having a go at that," Gerry Brownlee said.

AUGUST 3

A report noted there were areas, such as Avoca Valley, where protection work was "more complicated" but both "effective and economic". It cited that two properties in Gilmour Tce, Lyttelton, zoned red in June 29, with a combined capital value of $1m could be protected at the source on council-owned land for $100,000. "If mitigation was to be pursued in any scale, there are a number of questions that need to be considered. While none of these is insurmountable, it is clear that the construction of protective structures does add a level of complication to the Port Hills policy," the report said. "The extent of Crown support for mitigation zone will send a strong message to the community. The work done to date demonstrates that mitigation is feasible and in many instances cost-effective."

AUGUST 24

A report on the zoning of 37 properties in Bridle Path Rd and Horotane Valley said technical advice indicated the installation of bunds and fencing and the removal of rock outcrops would be effective in reducing life risk. Design standards would need to be developed and tested before consent was granted to ensure the structures could sustain significant rockfall, the report said. In both areas, indicative costings suggest more than $1 million could be saved by funding mitigation over paying out the combined property value. Three weeks later, the 37 properties were zoned red, with Brownlee saying that "feasibility, complexities around land ownership, cost-effectiveness and timeliness" made area-wide mitigation impractical.

- The Press

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