Residents plead for more time as redesign of flood-hit area begins

3:17 pm on 7 October 2020

Awatarariki residents say it is not appropriate for the council to redesign their neighbourhood while they are still living there.

Some residential homes in Matata have been told by council that they are in an area at threat of a deadly landslip but residents don't agree.

Residents refusing to sell until their case has been heard by the Environment Court say the council should wait until that outcome is heard. Photo: RNZ / Brad White

Whakatāne District Council is in the process of establishing a community group to develop a greenspace design for properties acquired by the council through its managed retreat from the area.

However, residents refusing to sell until their case has been heard by the Environment Court say the council should hold off and wait until that outcome is heard.

In May 2005, a torrential downpour washed boulders, logs and other debris down the flooded Awatarariki Stream, destroying 27 homes in Matatā and racking up a bill of $20 million.

Residents were allowed back into the area in 2006 because the council believed it could build a structure to contain debris in a similar event, but six years later it gave up on that idea saying the area was a "high loss of life risk zone" and managed retreat was the only viable option.

Matata floods 2005

Photo: Supplied / Michele Beach

Rachel Whalley, a member of Awatarariki Residents Society, addressed the council recently and said it was simply not right to begin planning around residents when there was still hope they could stay in their homes.

"An invitation to residents to participate in this initiative has been a kick in the guts and there is no good way to approach this," she said.

"There is concern that this is being closely managed by council and will not be a process led by the community."

As Whalley, her husband, Rick, and her mother-in-law Pam, are still Awatarariki residents they have put themselves forward to participate.

Councillor Lesley Immink asked staff at the meeting why there was "such a rush" for the reserve to be established and what the iwi perspective was.

Fears of losing funding

Planning and infrastructure general manager David Bewley said the timing was related to funding availability.

He said if the council did not spend the Department of Internal Affairs funding by 30 June next year it would lose it.

Bewley said iwi were included in the decision-making group.

Immink questioned if iwi had a "spiritual view" on starting new plans for an area when people were still living there but said "I'm not expecting an answer".

Councillor Gavin Dennis requested staff look into whether the funding deadline could be pushed out and said he had heard Māori were concerned at planning a reserve around people still living there with an open challenge at the Environment Court.

Bewley said in a statement the community group Kahui Awatarariki would determine the appropriate process and timeframe for the engagement and design phases of the project to be undertaken.

"There are, however, restrictions on the availability of funding from one of the funding partners," he said.

"At this stage, the funding was carried forward from the 2019-2020 financial year into this current financial year, but it was expected that the funds would have been used earlier rather than later in this financial year.

"The longer the delay in securing the funding, the greater the uncertainty over its continued availability."

Bewley said any decision from the Environment Court would not be due until at least late March 2021. "Delaying the commencement of the design process until after this date would not only mean there may be uncertainty on the availability of the funds, but also there would be insufficient time before the end of the financial year to undertake the necessary engagement, work through submissions and iterative versions of concept designs, finalise the design, and cost it," he said.

"This funding is significant and without it, the ability of the project to deliver on the aspirations of the community would be limited. Provision has been made for a design option that would allow for some properties remaining in private ownership, recognising the outcome of the Environment Court hearing is unknown."

Membership in Kahui Awatarariki includes affected fanhead property owners, local hapū/iwi (Ngāti Rangitihi, Tuwharetoa ki Kawerau, Ngāti Awa), the Matatā Residents Association, the Matatā community, the Rangitaiki Community Board, the Whakatāne District Council, and the Bay of Plenty Regional Council.

The group will have funds of $1.2 million to create an open space development project where houses once stood on the Awatarariki fanhead.

The Environment Court hearing is due to begin on 7 December.

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