Perspective Piece for Eyes East Episode 2:
It’s time for some rational debate about natural hazards
The strong backlash from the publication of Stage 3 of the Proposed Christchurch Replacement District Plan covering coastal and inundation hazards is the result of a number of failings – not least the prevalence of common sense.
Residents finding themselves in the new hazard management areas were understandably very concerned about their property values.
Some were preparing to mount a legal challenge, some were confronting the science or denying sea level rise would happen at all.
In the meantime the government has agreed to Christchurch City Council withdrawing the coastal hazard provisions from the replacement plan. This allows for a more lengthy debate and consultation process in the context of a new, yet-to-be-defined, national policy framework. But at what cost?
The issues still have to be addressed – and they are a priority if we are to attract much needed investment into the east.
To date, emotion, self-interest, misinterpretation, inaccuracy and denial have prevailed.
There is a desperate need to review the failings and the facts and attempt to navigate a rational pathway forward.
One major failing of the recovery has been the tweaking of the MBIE guidelines for repairs – cynics would say in collusion with the insurance industry. This has resulted in many homes with major earthquake repairs being allowed to be undertaken on land that has subsided up to a metre in places, without any raising of the floor levels to meet the new floor level and fill management area requirements.
Liability for meeting the new standards has passed to the home owners who can ill afford it, even though the risk has been greatly exacerbated by the quakes. This is scandalous and is why Hugo Kristinsson has agitated so vociferously for this to be addressed for some time.
Flood Management Areas are not new, yet communication and recognition of inundation hazard and what it means for individual property owners has been very poor.
Eastern Vision described it as the “elephant in the room” as far back as 2013 when we addressed John Key and Bill English in New Brighton.
Christchurch City Council processes have failed here too. Bound by process and legal recovery expediency requirements, engagement with affected communities has been too little, too late, incomplete and lacking in empathy. Especially when the communities most affected are still reeling from the direct impacts of the earthquakes.
Defining the risk without any means of exploring the implications, options and potential solutions with communities was always going to end in tears. It is largely as a result of this that the government has allowed the withdrawal of the coastal hazard provisions from the replacement district plan.
Central government must also shoulder some of the responsibility here though. The lack of a clear comprehensive national policy framework for responding to coastal hazards and sea level rise has left local authorities without any clear consistent guidance.
However there has also been a failing of community leadership with regard to this issue. Inciting very stressed residents to challenge the declaration of hazard risk is easy, but not helpful.
Indeed it is likely to be counterproductive: by appearing to sweep the risk under the carpet there is great danger that investor confidence in any potentially affected area will be degraded to the point where property values will be significantly impacted anyway.
An investor, whether looking to buy a home or a large property, will invest with confidence in a place subject to hazard risks provided the risks are clearly identified and there are good strategies to mitigate those risks where possible. What they won’t do is invest where there are potential risks that aren’t understood or are cloaked in uncertainty.
Likewise an insurer is only going to provide cover where the risk and mitigation strategies are well defined – they do not rely on council zoning to determine such risk but on sophisticated assessment methodologies of their own.
So let’s examine the facts. What does it mean that a property lies within a hazard management area and is flagged as such on the LIM?
It means the property lies within a zone that alerts a potential purchaser to the need to undertake further assessment of hazard risk and mitigation strategies at an individual property level – particularly if they wish to undertake any redevelopment work.
Redevelopment within the existing footprint and scale can probably claim existing use rights and be subject only to building consent conditions that may require minimum floor level compliance.
Any redevelopment beyond this or subdivision is not prohibited per se, however it would be a non-complying activity and as such would require resource consent. This would mean satisfying the consenting authority that all natural hazard risks had been addressed in the design – a much more difficult, but not insurmountable, test.
Surely this is a good thing. Knowing what you are buying will make selling a lot easier. A savvy vendor may even prepare the way by making available a hazard assessment report for a potential buyer.
The point is, that just because a property is identified as lying within a Hazard Management Area doesn’t mean its value has plummeted overnight (any more than it did under the previous flood management area zoning). There is still inherent value in the property despite the recognition of natural hazard risk.
The risk mitigation strategies available to property owners in hazard management areas are many and various.
There are strategies that contain the risk by using engineered defensive barricades against inundation such as sea walls, stop banks, tidal barriers etc. These tend to be area-wide.
However many of these severely degrade the environmental and landscape values that attract investment in the area in the first place and are thus self-defeating, and are often unsustainable in the long term. They can also give false security to the community and encourage more intensified development putting more assets at risk.
Enhancement of natural barriers and buffers such as dune systems, estuarine marshes and river wetlands are more sustainable solutions - provided there is space to achieve this. The red zoning of large tracts of the Avon-Ōtākaro river corridor including Bexley gives us room to deploy such mitigation strategies – albeit supported by stopbanks located to allow for extensive flood plains.
In some places the degree of urban development in coastal suburbs and natural inland basins limits the room available for such natural barriers to be fully developed and effective.
There are also options to adapt properties to handle the risk – to future proof them. The minimum floor level standards established within the Replacement District Plan are designed to do just that.
Jason Mill of Pivnice Architecture has been working in this field for some time and points to the flood plain communities of South East Asia that build homes on stilts, to the design solutions being developed in the coastal communities of New York following Hurricane Sandy, and the new strategies being developed by the Dutch.
There are ways to design homes that sit lightly on the land and can survive natural hazard risks.
Inevitably and eventually however some residential neighbourhoods may not be sustainable in the face of sea level rise and other hazards. It is not likely to be confronted for some time, but retreat from some land may need to be seriously considered at some point in a planned way.
The challenge for everyone is how this can be achieved while minimising financial loss for home owners. Christchurch is not alone in this; it is something that all coastal towns and cities will have to confront at some point in the future.
However even these properties will retain an inherent market value in the interim to those who choose to live in such areas as a lifestyle rather than investment choice, to those who wish to rent, to those seeking affordable transitional housing and to those willing to accept the hazard risks.
Some claim that the declaration of high hazard management areas will sound the death knell for the heart of New Brighton – but consider this scenario.
A developer purchases an old retail property in Seaview Road between Union and Hardy Streets and wants to build a mix of residential and holiday accommodation 3-4 stories high consistent with the new mixed-use zoning.
How can they do this when the land is in a high hazard management area? By addressing the hazard in the design, for example by turning the ground floor into car parking – the so-called sacrificial ground floor.
The land still has inherent commercial value provided any new development is designed to mitigate the identified risks – it’s about building back smarter.
As someone who was red zoned and then bought a replacement home which is now designated in a floor level and fill management area, I believe that common sense must prevail here, otherwise we’ll be on a hiding to nothing.
If we continue to put our heads in the sand, all we will achieve in the next decent storm surge is a salt water enema.
Keeping communities safe from natural hazards is a topic covered briefly in the second episode of Eyes East which screens 8:30pm Thursdays on CTV or on demand at www.rebuildchristchurch.co.nz. The demand for a wider debate has convinced us to consider producing an hour-long Eyes East special devoted to this issue in late November.
Evan Smith is Programme Manager of Eastern Vision and a key member of the Eyes East production team.