Bexley residents may sue Christchurch council

The Christchurch residents in the suburb of Bexley may be forced to sue the city council to receive full compensation.

Under Earthquake Commission formula for compensation provides for a $100,000 payment on top of compensation for the smallest sized lot in a particular subdivision so homeowners of smaller sections of around 450m2 may end up better off than those with larger plots.

The residents of badly affected Bexley appear to have a good case because the subdivision was owned by the city council until sold to private developers in the late 1980s specifically for housing. Bexley overlooks the Avon River and wetlands near South Brighton and part of it is built on a former landfill.

As reported on NBR Online last week, mayor Bob Parker was forced to backtrack on claims that developers forced through inappropriate development against city council objections. He told radio, television and newspaper outlets that developers had appealed the matter to the Environment Court in spite of city council objections.

But a perusal of the records shows the city council never objected to any developments over concerns about liquefaction.

The private developers who bought the council land sought rezoning in 1992. The only objectors were environmentalists concerned about the loss of wetlands. The Environment Court acceded to their requests to reduce the area for housing.

The directors of one of the Bexley development companies include high profile South Island names such as Phil Burmester, David Lyall, Phil Cooper and James Wall. At various times they sold on their interests.

Foundation rules unset
At issue in any court case will be the foundation requirements of the council at the time. Early reports suggest that only minimal reinforcing of concrete foundation slabs was required (by contrast, new building in other peat-profile suburbs has required extensive pole foundations underneath concrete slabs and it is unclear why these were not mandatory at Bexley).

Conditions requiring remediation of potential liquefaction sites have been required in more recent years by the regional council, notably at Pegasus Town. Environment Canterbury was unsuccessful in preventing the development of the suburb that is about 20km north of Christchurch.

But it was successful in requiring that the developer, Infinity, use vibrating technology to settle the land as well as extensively building up the soil. Pegasus was unscathed in the earthquake of September 4 and is likely to become a favoured location by the many residents of nearby Kaiapoi where about 300 houses are severely damaged.

Stay or go?
Throughout Christchurch there are approximately 5000 severely damaged homes, although Earthquake Commission officials have a long way to go before they finally assess them all, much to the frustration of many residents who still cannot decide whether to remain or find accommodation, complicated by the fact that they may only need a few months’ accommodation whereas landlords want long leases.

There has been some evidence of rental property owners taking advantage of the large numbers of people seeking accommodation by lifting prices.

One couple with a home in badly affected Avonside who were interviewed by NBR NZPI, said they had changed their minds two or three times about whether to stay or seek other accommodation. During the first couple of weeks when they had no power, water or sewerage they had spent a few nights in a motel.

But services have been restored, albeit intermittently amid conflicting advice that changes on a daily basis about whether they can use toilets and showers. They have decided to stay put and the initial assessment from Earthquake Commission officials is that their house may be repaired by lifting it off the old foundations and re-piling it.

Green belt loosening?
Meanwhile, the earthquake damage raises questions about the Greater Christchurch Urban Development Strategy, a non-statutory planning programme that was previously chaired by mayor Bob Parker.

The strategy sought to impose a green belt around the city and dictate areas for housing, commercial and retail development mainly determined by the existing roads, power, sewage and water infrastructure.

The glaring omission in the strategy has been any mention of liquefaction, while also downplaying flooding. It is unclear how this will be tackled legally because Plan Change 1 that would put the green belt into effect is currently awaiting fixtures for appeals.

Developers such as Prestons in the north east of the city (omitted from Plan Change 1) are understood to be lobbying their cause, much to the dismay of other developers in areas that may now be considered at more risk.

For example, Fulton Hogan has about 500 sections ready to build in the southwest and it has followed all the due planning processes. But the extraordinary powers conferred by the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act on earthquake commissioners can override other legislative procedures.

The extraordinary powers are conferred on Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee until June 2011. He has appointed a seven member commission to include the mayors of the Christchurch, Selwyn and Waimakariri Districts elected after the October 9 local body elections, one of the recently government-appointed commissioners of Environment Canterbury, Dame Margaret Bazely, and chaired by Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry director general Murray Sherwin. Also joining Mr Sherwin and Dame Margaret will be earthquake engineer David Hopkins and one other appointee, to be confirmed.

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