FAMILY FIRST: Three of four generations of Whalleys, Rick Whalley with his mother Pam and grandchildren Quinn, Odin and Max. Photo Mark Rieder D8732-06
  • Government contributes to $15 million buyout of Matata residents living in red-zone limbo

THE Whalleys have been a part of Clem Elliott Drive since the early-90s, and they are now one of the families its residents lean on most.

Rick and Rachel Whalley moved to Matata in 2012 to help Rick’s mother Pam care for his severely ill father Bill.

Mr Whalley said his late father suffered several heart attacks and struggled to sleep as he stressed about what would happen to the home he built in 1993 with savings amassed from a lifetime working at the Kawerau mill.

“We don’t know if he would have suffered the same heart attacks without the added stress, but you can definitely attribute at least part of it to it.”

The home is where grandchildren gather for Christmas and where they bring their pets to be buried.

“They say a home is your biggest asset, but we don’t look at it that way,” said Mr Whalley.

“There is no way we can replace it; we won’t accept any offer, it is priceless to us.”

The Whalleys were originally offered $700,000 for their home in 2016 which was less than the home was worth 11 years earlier.

Despite the council having no money at the time to follow through on the offers, residents were told that would be the only offer they would get.

“It is blackmail essentially,” said Mr Whalley.

“It’s either accept the offer or be kicked out of your home.”

Since then the council has teamed up with the Bay of Plenty Regional Council and the Government to amass a $15 million buy-out package. Residents have been asked to inform the council within the next month if they would like to participate in the managed retreat.

Evaluators will then asses each property and the council will make an offer.

The Whalleys have already decided they will not move willingly and are now gearing up for a fight in the Environment Court to challenge the council and ensure their managed retreat is legal.

Mr Whalley said it would not be a fair or easy fight as residents did not have access to the same funding and experts as the council, nor had they had access to the same information.

Part of the problem is the residents’ homes have been effectively sterilised by the council and they cannot raise loans against them to fund an extended legal battle.

Mr Whalley also said he felt like council had used a “divide and conquer” technique against residents.

“They would speak to us all individually and we felt like we were all hearing something different. That’s why we formed the Awatarariki Residents Incorporated so they would be forced to meet with us all as a group.”

ARI represents 25 members, and, last Saturday, Mr Whalley created a Givealittle page for the group under the name E Tu Awatarariki Matata to ask for donations to fund their legal fight.

“We can’t raise the funds ourselves because our homes have been sterilised,” said Mr Whalley.

“We are also effectively paying twice; we’re paying for their lawyers through our rates and we will need to pay for our own too. We’re asking New Zealand to donate because this will set a precedent for the whole country.”

If the regional council uses the Resource Management Act to null their existing land rights and moves them out with no compensation Mr Whalley said there was nothing to stop it happening to other New Zealanders in coastal areas.

“People could also say to their councils that, due to climate change, their homes are now too dangerous to live in and demand that the council buy them out. Their council could then demand the Government pay for that too as they have set a precedent here already.”

Mr Whalley believes there are still mitigation options that could be used, such as rainfall monitoring, soil saturation monitoring and keeping the Awatarariki Stream clear.

Some work towards potential mitigation has already occurred such as the widening and deepening of the stream and ensuring there is adequate flow under the nearby railway bridge.

Despite this, Mr Whalley said residents would have left if they had been told their homes were unsafe at the time of the debris flow.

“Instead, we have been traumatised with 14 years of stress,” he said.

“If we had moved elsewhere, we would have been able to move on. Instead we were allowed back in, to rebuild our lives and homes only to be told seven years later we would have to move. We have been traumatised twice, once by the event and again by the council.

Improvements on properties are not being taken into consideration by the council and the Whalleys are still paying off the cost of a $90,000 loan to put an elevator in the home for the use of Mr Whalley’s elderly parents.

“It is a straight financial transaction, there is no emotion or feeling in it,” he said.

“They have simply done a desktop report and haven’t taken into consideration how people are feeling. This isn’t about us digging our heels in, it’s about ensuring we get a fair go.”

Mr Whalley will be meeting with the other members of ARI in the coming weeks to ensure they are all in agreement of the next step.

For now, they will be taking some time to breathe.