Later Declares the Site Is Subject to Coastal Hazards
The Thames-Coromandel Council has placed a sea flood warning on the land title of the Richmond Villas retirement village in Thames. So how come the Council gave its consent for 73 new apartments on this land only a year earlier? The answer is disturbing. The Council relied on a 16-year-old coastal hazard assessment, ignored strict government policies on coastal hazards and sea level rise guidance, and denied the public a say. The Council also knew the land is subsiding and that this creates a greater flood risk.
James Renwick Climate Scientist
So how on earth could TCDC declare that the land is subject to a coastal flooding hazard but also grant a resource consent to build a major apartment complex on that land? Easy – TCDC essentially ignored coastal flooding when considering the resource consent. Just give it a cursory mention and magically the problem will disappear.
The land is low lying and Waikato Regional Council coastal flooding maps show that the land would be submerged under modest sea level rise scenarios. The New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement (NZCPS) requires that climate change be considered and requires – for major new coastal development – to “avoid” (i.e. not allow) increasing the risk of coastal hazards. Yet the words “climate change”, “global warming”, “sea level rise” or “inundation” do not appear anywhere in the assessment of environmental effects filed in support of the application. Worse still, TCDC did not require any up to date reports or assessments of coastal hazard risk for this development.
As a result, TCDC considered the resource consent application for the apartment buildings in a self-imposed information vacuum, where the latest data on climate change, sea level rise and the threat of coastal inundation was simply disregarded.
The only oblique reference to sea level rise in any of the 2017 documents is to a 16-year old report from 2001 in which consultants Tonkin and Taylor projected a sea level rise of just 0.49 m by 2100, and a return period of 50 years rather than the “at least 100 years” required by the NZCPS. Although TCDC recognised in its consent decision that coastal inundation and climate change modelling “has altered in the intervening years” it was still prepared to accept these grossly out of date projections because there was “a significant scale of existing development within the site”.
In this contorted and absurd reasoning, TCDC concluded that the presence of existing development somehow protected both the existing units and the new apartments from any coastal flooding hazard threat. Summed up this way – “We don’t have to insist on a new up-to-date hazard assessment for a new development because the sea wouldn’t dare try to flood an area which already had houses built on it … would it?”
What Evidence Did TCDC Ignore?
As a result of this head in the sand approach TCDC chose to remain willfully ignorant about coastal hazards and the following significant evidence was not considered when the 2017 resource consent for the apartments was assessed–
- the current threat of direct inundation from storm surge over-topping the seawall. Embarrassingly for TCDC, over-topping of the wall did happen on 5 January 2018 just a few months after TCDC grant consent. The main entrance to Richmond Villas was flooded.
- rising groundwater forced up by sea level rise, and the potential impact this may have inundation (ponding), on contaminants in the soil, and on liquefaction, (well understood and being addressed in South Dunedin- which like the Richmond Villas site has high ground water which rises and falls with the tide.)
- how subsidence together with sea level rise poses a greatly increased inundation risk. TCDC knew of this increased risk because since the enlarged seawall was built around the nearby Moanataiari subdivision in the early 2000’s TCDC received yearly and five-yearly reports from consultants Tonkin and Taylor. These reports highlighted that a combination of land subsidence and sea level rise will significantly increase the risk of coastal flooding for that subdivision. Also as early as the 1970s TCDC was warned by the Ministry of Works that the adjacent seawall at Danby Field had subsided by over 1.5 m. Richmond Villas, Moanataiari and Danby Field are similar having all been reclaimed over soft marine muds using a mixture of fill and Council rubbish.
- TCDC ignored the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s 2015 Report which concludes that storm surges that are currently of one–in–100–year intensity will occur every 6 – 12 months with just 0.5 meters of sea level rise.
- the 2008 Government Guidelines on Sea Level Rise which required consideration by TCDC of 0.8 m of sea level rise by 2100 were also ignored.
- the 2017 Ministry Guidelines on sea level rise had been circulated in draft form to TCDC but these were also ignored. Those 2017 guidelines required consideration of 1.9 m of sea level rise, and other scenarios.
- the Waikato Regional Council had provided a Coastal Inundation Tool on its website in 2016. Inundation maps using even modest sea level rise scenarios showed that the apartment site, access and surrounding land/suburbs would be flooded. Under high/extreme sea level rise and storm surge scenarios in the tool, the lower habitable floor of the apartment building would be flooded. The tool was not referred to or used, by either the applicant or TCDC.
- TCDC could have taken the simple step of asking for a free natural hazard assessment from the Waikato Regional Council but failed to do so. If they had done so they would have received this report which confirms the land is subject not only to coastal inundation but also river bank and coastal erosion. And, TCDC would have seen this coastal flooding map in the Regional Council Assessment. Best not to ask? Here is an extract from that report –
- The NZCPS was issued in 2010. In 2014 New Zealand’s highest court – the Supreme Court ruled in the ‘King Salmon’ case that the NZCPS had precedence over lower-order planning instruments such as the District Plan. The NZCPS contains directive policies requiring the Council to “avoid” increasing the risk of coastal hazards and the Supreme Court ruled that avoid means “not allow”. At the time TCDC was considering the apartment resource consent the High Court had determined in the RJ Davidson Trust case that the Supreme Court rulings on the NZCPS also applied to resource consents. So what careful legal analysis did TCDC carry out regarding these authoritative legal precedents? – Zero. TCDC pretended that none of these rulings applied to them. Council brushed aside these binding legal precedents in one sentence in the resource consent decision “The proposal is consistent with the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement.”
- The RMA was recently amended to make planning for natural hazards a matter of “national importance” under section 6. TCDC ignored this provision also.
The Public Had No Say
The resource consent application was considered by TCDC on a non-notified basis. The public had no say. The consent was granted as a fait accompli before the public knew anything about the proposal. I am told that even some local District Councillors representing Thames were unaware of the application until after it was granted. This seems plausible because when the current Mayor was elected in 2017 she and the Chief Executive changed Council policy so that local community boards were no longer informed or asked for comment about major resource consent applications in their area.
Request for Review
When I discovered the consent had been granted, I researched the documentation presented by the developer and the Council’s resource consent decision. I was horrified that an up-to-date coastal hazard assessment had not been provided. And I was appalled at the atrociously bad decision-making by TCDC in –
- failing to publicly notify the application
- failing to require a proper hazard assessment
- essentially ignoring coastal hazards
- failing to apply well-established legal precedent and planning principles regarding coastal hazards.
In October 2017 I requested that TCDC review its resource consent decision under the RMA because of the “material inaccuracies” I have listed above. TCDC refused to review the decision, citing low-level District Plan provisions and once again pretending that the highest level directive and binding provisions in the NZCPS did not have to be considered. A second request for a review went unanswered.
I expect that this article will cause a few to respond that this is “scaremongering”, and unnecessarily causing worry to “old ladies” and that housing for Thames retirees is urgently needed. There will be an understandable concern among some Villa residents.
First, remember it is the TCDC which has placed the notation on the title confirming that the land is subject to a coastal flooding hazard.
Second, I strongly support apartment accommodation for the elderly in Thames in the right location, just not here. However, I am convinced that the Richmond Villas land is profoundly unsuitable, hazardous, and poses a potential danger to both the property and the wellbeing of the elderly and infirm, who are often the least resilient and most vulnerable members of our community.
People will make their own personal judgement when assessing risk which is fine. But knowledge is power. The poor decisions by Council cannot be undone. But now that the hazard notation has been placed on the title judgements about risk-taking can be made on a much more informed basis.
Third, this abysmal decision by TCDC to grant a resource consent (almost certainly duplicated by other councils) confirms that the current planning/building laws on climate change, sea level rise and coastal hazards need urgent review. It is intolerable that dopey and dangerous coastal development like this is still being consented. Law changes proposed by the Environment Minister can’t come soon enough. The government must ensure that the public and NGOs are notified and able to participate, that a clear set of mandatory and enforceable regulations about new developments on the coast are established rather than the current loose “guidelines”. Local authorities must be made strictly legally liable for consenting risky coastal developments.