Diocese 'blackmailing court' over Euphrasie House

UNDER THREAT: The 1939 Spanish-revival-styled convent and hostel Euphrasie House.
UNDER THREAT: The 1939 Spanish-revival-styled convent and hostel Euphrasie House.

The Catholic Diocese of Hamilton is holding the Environment Court to ransom by refusing to use Euphrasie House if an appeal stops its demolition, a supporter of the building says.

The Diocese bought Euphrasie House, a 1939 Spanish-revival-styled convent and hostel, in 2012. A consent for its demolition, supported by the Hamilton City Council, was sought and granted by independent commissioner Murray Kivell in April 2013. A new two-storey diocesan centre is planned in its place.

In the Environment Court this week, The Hamilton East Community Trust launched its fight to appeal the decision.

Phil Lang, counsel for the diocese, said demolition was appropriate due to the huge cost - about $2 million - to earthquake-strengthen the building. This created "serious financial hardship", he said.

"The applicant's contention is that it is an absolutely critical consideration in the present case." Lang said even if the diocese was forced to keep it and it was strengthened, they wouldn't use the building anyway, due to fears that it would still pose an earthquake risk.

Trust chairwoman Lois Livingston told the Waikato Times outside court that the Diocese was simply blackmailing the court by saying they won't use if they lose.

"That's rubbish. I mean the Government standard is 34 per cent . . . it's blackmail, ‘we will never occupy it'. But is it a reason to demolish it?"

Trust counsel Robert Makgill told the hearing Euphrasie House was a category 2 building - meaning it wouldn't need earthquake strengthening until March 31, 2030. However, City Council lawyer Theresa Le Bas said there had been an "administrative error" and it was in fact a category 1 - with a 2019 deadline.

Makgill also submitted there was no proof of financial hardship. The Diocese could improve its financial position by selling it for its rateable value - $2.425m - rather than the proposed $800,000.

"We are being asked to accept without any evidence of market demand that there's no demand for the site and its buildings at a price to avoid unreasonable financial hardship . . . it is possible that [the Diocese] could sell the property for less than they purchased it and still not satisfy the threshold of hardship."

The trust's heritage advisor, Dr Ann McEwan, said Euphrasie House and the chapel were the "character-defining elements" of Hamilton East.

Lang said Euphrasie House still had an A-historic rating in the council's proposed district plan. That meant it could not be demolished.

However, if the appeal was dismissed the Diocese would lodge an appeal to have that reduced to a B, and construct a building complementary not only to the chapel, but also for activities and functions. The smaller chapel, with a Historic Places ranking and higher heritage value, is to be retained.

Le Bas said the demolition was "fair, appropriate and reasonable in the particular circumstances".

The hearing's adjudicators - Judge Craig Thompson and Commissioners Kathryn Edmonds and David Kernohan - reserved their decision.

Waikato Times