9 Mar 2023

Council decides against paying to help stabilise landslip next to New Plymouth home

5:54 am on 9 March 2023
Jennifer Chen has black long hair and wears an orange dress. She stands at the edge of her property looking down at the cliff which has fallen away.

Jennifer Chen has been unable to sleep since the cliff gave way and she is off work. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

A New Plymouth couple whose home is teetering on the edge of a massive slip on council-owned land is seeking legal advice after councillors voted not to pay to help fix the problem.

David and Jennifer Chen say they can no longer let their daughter play outside and have trouble sleeping at night since the cliff collapsed.

The Chens' Merrilands home is perched above the Waiwhakaiho River overlooking the picturesque Audrey Gale Reserve.

In July last year a huge chunk of the cliff face gave way.

David Chen, who is a geotechnical engineer, said the slip was a threat to his home.

"It's just three or four metres away very close to my property, so I'm worried and I'm concerned about if this situation continues.

"It's already a potential risk, a real risk, a high risk for human safety and our house's safety."

David Chen

David Chen made an impassioned plea to council asking for financial help to repair the slip. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Chen made an impassioned plea to council this week asking for financial help to fix the slip or to be bought out so the couple could move on.

The council made its decision behind closed doors.

"They said they won't take care of this land and they won't repair this land and they won't think about other options right now. What I have got is that they just won't help to stabilise this land."

Jennifer Chen had been unable to work since the cliff gave way.

"It's my nightmare and eventually I can't have a normal life. I can't have a good sleep every night. This life is ridiculous."

David Chen said their 11-year daughter Nancy was barred from playing outside.

"No, I won't let her too close to this area because I worry she'll fall to the bottom."

Neighbour Pete Swanson said the Chens have been broken by their ordeal.

Neighbour Pete Swanson said the Chens have been broken by their ordeal. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Next door neighbour Peter Swanson said the ordeal had taken an awful toll on the couple who moved to New Zealand only four years ago.

"It's a very tight neighbourhood, we have our little groups and have catch ups every now and again, but they're broken people which is a shame because that's the first home they ever bought.

"They used to be out in the garden all the time mowing the lawns doing the gardens, building stuff but now you don't see them the curtains are pulled and Jenny is just broken. It's sad."

He was disappointed with the council response because the Chens were prepared to share the cost of fixing the bank but could not go forward without council help.

Councillor Dinnie Moeahu walked out of the behind closed doors meeting when it was clear the council was not going to support the couple.

"There's erosion occurring that's affecting the property but it is on council reserve land and council in my view are finding a way not to be responsible in terms of fixing that erosion.

"I'm not satisfied I think council can do better. My issue is that as council we have a duty of care a responsibility. It is on council land so why aren't we fixing it?"

Incoming New Plymouth mayor Neil Holdom.

Mayor Neil Holdom is sympathetic to the Chens' plight but says council does not want to set a precedent over land that is experiencing naturally occurring subsidence. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Mayor Neil Holdom sympathised with the Chens and acknowledged they were disappointed with the decision.

"Council was asked essentially to draw the line between private loss and public liability for what is a naturally occurring land subsidence in the area where it's been a known issue for decades.

"In this situation we were unable to support the request and ultimately we didn't want to set a precedent."

The subsidence was recorded on the property's Land Information Memorandum (LIM) report and the council had to consider that it owned 700 hectares of reserve land adjacent to thousands of private properties, Holdom said.

"We determined that a decision to provide a financial contribution, while meeting the interests of the family affected in this case, would be financially unsustainable for ratepayers."

It was a difficult decision for councillors to make, but they couldn't ignore the advice they had received or the wider issues, he said.

"You only have to look at the scale of the land subsidence issue we are seeing all over the country with climate change and flooding to realise that councils and communities can't to cover all of these costs and a line has to be drawn somewhere.

"We are also waiting for a piece of legislation around this, which is part of the Resource Management Act reform process which will clarify the government's view on where the line be drawn between private loss and public liability in the case of these situations."

Holdom said the council remained committed to monitoring the safety of the cliff, cleaning privately-installed drains - which had been funded by the Earthquake Commission for previous residents - and would provide access through the Audrey Gale Reserve should the Chens choose to fix the slip themselves provided they did not create a hazard or ongoing liability to council.

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