Coastal sites closed for overnight camping by flood risk

8:00 pm on 14 October 2021

South Wairarapa District Council [SWDC] has closed two coastal campgrounds for overnight camping because of a one-in-100-year flood risk.

Te Awaiti campsite on the South Wairarapa coast.

Te Awaiti campsite on the South Wairarapa coast. Photo: Supplied

Now, the Martinborough Community Board has requested the a copy of the legal advice and risk assessment report used to justify the closures.

SWDC chief executive Harry Wilson made the call on Monday to close Te Awaiti and North Tora campsites.

The decision followed fierce opposition by residents and risk mitigation solutions raised by community board members.

"I am not going to get into any further debate," Wilson said in an email to community board chair Mel Maynard after making the decision on Monday.

"My email to you on Thursday night was very clear that you had to prove to me … that the option of eliminating the risk was not practicable."

Under the Health and Safety Act 2015, council chief executives are personally liable for failing to meet health and safety duties and can be prosecuted.

The same reasoning was given for the removal of unsafe playground equipment in Masterton last year because it did not comply with national playground standards.

In 2018, a popular campsite in Piha was closed after an Auckland Council report found the land to be unsafe and said that future floods could result in loss of life.

The Piha closure followed severe flooding in February and April of that year.

Regarding the two council-owned campsites in South Wairarapa, Wilson said people could drown in an overnight flash flood and summer campers could soon be affected.

But residents have argued flooding rarely happens at the site and believe advisory signage currently at the sites is enough to mitigate the risk.

Community Board members also suggested risk mitigation strategies and said there was an existing emergency response team, existing weather stations, a possibility of wifi and cellphone access, and the possibility of installing an emergency alarm system.

Board member Aidan Ellims, a former police officer, sent an operational plan to Wilson outlining how the council could minimise and mitigate the flood risk to freedom campers over the upcoming Labour Weekend.

Ellims volunteered to administer this plan.

But it wasn't enough to outweigh the risk, Wilson said.

"The [Health and Safety at Work Act] imposes a duty and requires me to eliminate the risk to health and safety so far as reasonably practicable," Wilson wrote to Martinborough Community Board members on Monday.

"In this situation, the risk can be eliminated by banning overnight camping so the second limb of this obligation "so far as reasonably Practicable" does not apply.

"My primary obligation is to eliminate the risk."

He said he appreciated the work the board had done, "but your subsequent emails have not answered this fundamental question regarding the elimination of risk".

"I have therefore decided that the Act requires me to eliminate the risk by closing the site to overnight camping."

Maynard responded: "I have today been able to confirm that there is a way to provide the cellphone and wifi services that you said would be the only option you would accept to keep the campgrounds open".

"The solution you wanted can be done. Please advise why this is no longer acceptable. If you were never going to accept your own "only option" why have we wasted all these hours? Precious, precious hours!".

Wilson first raised the campground issue publicly at a council meeting in September.

He said he had received some urgent information on the Te Awaiti campgrounds that required him as chief executive to seek legal advice on closing the campground for overnight camping due to flood risk.

At another council meeting, he revealed that the North Tora campsite was also facing closure.

At Wednesday's Martinborough Community Board meeting, Ellims requested a copy of the legal advice Wilson had received and advice from Local Government New Zealand.

"Can we receive that by the end of this week so we are able to understand the information you have received?"

Wilson replied: "I'd prefer to do a comprehensive report to get all the information together. What I heard from the chair was a request for a comprehensive report. I think getting little bits of information is not helpful. My advice is to follow the recommendation from the chair."

Maynard then asked, "Are we able though, Harry, to see the legal advice you received that meant you could no longer take into consideration the options that were discussed on Thursday night [at a previous board meeting]?"

Wilson replied: "Please I'm not trying to make an excuse here, but the moment the legal advice goes to you, it does not attach privilege and remember it relates to my personal liability as well. This isn't just the liability of council. I just need to review it and make sure it is safe to place in the public arena."

Councillor Pam Colenso agreed with Wilson's sentiment but asked for a timeframe on when members would receive a report on the closures.

There was no firm answer on this, but board members acknowledged Wilson was busy with the council audit process and also sorting the miscommunicated rates rise issue.

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