Jan 2012- Half Baked Quake-Zoning Policy Compounds Suffering in New Zealand

Christchurch, New Zealand- The one year anniversary of the Feb. 22, 2011 earthquake in Christchurch is approaching and many residents are still suffering. A series of unprecedented zoning decisions announced by the government have compounded problems for the people of the shaky city. Coupled with a quasi-voluntary buy out offer, these post-quake policies are wrecking more havoc in residents’ lives.

Only insured homeowners whose homes are red-zoned (condemned) are eligible for a buy-out offer. Uninsured homeowners, commercial building owners and bare land owners are left in limbo with their equities essentially frozen by the zoning policy.

Repeated requests by residents and MPs to the Earthquake Recovery Ministry to amend such omissions have produced little result. While the rest of the city gets on with recovery, these red zone homeowners have a Goliath to contend with.

The multiple earthquakes in Canterbury starting in September 2010 were unprecedented in New Zealand history. In the aftermath the National-party led government headed by prime minister John Key decided to intervene in the recovery process by introducing a new zoning scheme.

The scheme divides Christchurch and adjacent districts into zones of white, green, orange, and red. Green zone is the only zone which is allowed to continue with repairs and rebuild. On the other end of the spectrum, red zone properties are condemned and are not allowed to repair and all reconstruction work must be halted.

The zoning decisions were announced in piece-meal fashion over several months. The first zoning announcement came in June 23, 2011, four months after the most devastating Feb 22 quake. There was no public input on the zoning scheme prior to it being announced. Many affected homeowners feel their rights are being trampled and their cherished democratic system usurped.

The primary criteria for zoning decision appears to be the costs of repairing infrastructure such as roads, water and sewer lines. According to a formula in the government’s own cabinet papers (http://cera.govt.nz/cabinet-papers) if a home’s value is deemed to be less than the government’s infrastructure repair costs, the home is zoned red and thereby condemned. Official explanations (http://landcheck.org.nz/Home/ZoneInfo ) for the public show a different set of criteria for zoning, among them results from geotechnical surveys commissioned and funded by the government.

To date the government has continued to withhold geotechnical data from the public and from the zoning-affected homeowners despite continuing public outcry for such data to be released.

A buy-out offer scheme for these condemned homes which are insured was announced at the same time as the first zoning announcement in June 2011. Although technically voluntary, the buy-out scheme forces insured homeowners to make a hard choice between losing significant amounts of life savings or be faced with eviction orders. Stress and heartache brought about by these actions are the last things these quake-ravaged people need.