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Howard's End: Washed Down The Hokitika River

An urgent plea for help to Labour Transport Minister Mark Gosche on behalf of a Hokitika resident whose home is threatened to be washed down the Hokitika river has so far gone unanswered. Maree Howard writes.

Laying in bed listening to the rain is said to be one of life's great pleasures, but for Hokitika invalid beneficiary, (leg amputee) Ken Mehrtens, who lives on the south bank of the Hokitika River, rain means he doesn't go to bed at all and sits dozing in his chair in case heavy rain in the Southern Alps causes river flooding and an immediate dash to evacuate his 80-year-old home.

In times of heavy rain up to 3 metres of water can cascade down the river to the sea - exactly where he lives.

His problems started in 1988 when the National Roads Board (now Transit NZ) decided, under a former Labour government Minister of Transport, to build a new road- bridge across the Hokitika River.

On 28 June, Scoop wrote the following letter to Mr Gosche which remains unanswered despite a reminder faxed to his office Tuesday:

" I am following-up a story in Hokitika and I would very much appreciate your urgent help."

"In 1988 the National Roads Board (NRB) (now Transit NZ) decided to construct a new 410 metre road bridge and causeway across the Hokitika River."

" As part of the consent process there was a requirement for the then Transport Minister to agree to designate - part bed of Hokitika River - part legal road - and part railway - in the Westland County Scheme under the Town & Country Planning Act as proposed State Highway."

"The then Minister of Transport agreed and, in accordance with s118 (6), accepted conditions which included that rock protection works be built 50 metres below the bridge and 400 metres upstream. Correspondence shows that the NRB also accepted these conditions as binding on the project."

"However, the NRB subsequently discovered design errors and built of 740 metre bridge. While the water rights were varied by the then Catchment Board the designation and the conditions for the installation of rock protection works in the designation were not."

"Yet, for some unknown reason, the NRB built the 50 metres of rock protection below the bridge but not the 400 metres upstream. It is significant that where the 50 metres is installed there are no problems."

"At the time, river-front residents were adamant that the design of the new bridge would cause significant flood damage to their property but this was ultimately discounted."

" For whatever reason, river-front property is now being devastated to the point where one resident, an invalid beneficiary, having already lost land and sheds into the river, is about to lose his home. The river is just metres from his garage. Another has completely lost his section while yet others have lost land and significant stands of ancient rimu and other native flora into the river."

"Over time, attempts have been made by authorities to establish a rating district for rock protection works whereby the residents will make financial contributions as will Transit NZ. To date, these attempts have been unsuccessful."

"There was also an Environment Court case in August 2000 where a lawyer attempted to try and simply prove that Transit caused the problem. That was lost on the grounds of a single point at first instance - no causation proved."

"Nevertheless, the conditions for the installation of rock protection works accepted and agreed by the Minister in the original designation approval have not been met. It was the judge in the Environment Court case who pointed this out."

"The judge stated that the relevant points about the designation conditions are;-"

" That the designation approval related to more than simply land over which the bridge was to run. It also, in condition 6, related to land and works on the south bank of the river upstream for the rock protection works."

"That the designation and the conditions for the designation was never altered (under s 181 of the RMA and its predecessor the TCPA)"

"That both the water rights AND the designations were necessary before the work on land could be carried out by the NRB (See Crimp v Invercargill City Council.)"

" The resident still cannot understand why his lawyer in the Environment Court did not argue these points at the substantive hearing, particularly when the judge initially pointed her in that direction. Nevertheless, she did not, and the case was lost."

" Given that the conditions agreed by the then Minister of Transport and NRB in 1988 in the designations have not been met and because of the urgency of the matter now, will you or your officials urgently meet with the effected residents? If not, what other steps will you urgently take to enforce the agreed designation conditions?"

End of letter of 28 June to Mr Gosche which remains unanswered.

In 1995 the Holmes Show carried a report by reporter John Sellwood relating to the loss of land, buildings and trees in which Transit NZ's manager Robin Odams said " We believe it's a natural phenomena - there was erosion occurring before the bridge was built - there are old river channels that go right through this area and in our view it is part of a natural event."

But Ken Mehrtens and other affected residents question how the land and trees existed for a thousand years and his home for 80 years, yet within 5 years of the bridge being built the problems started with land, ancient trees and buildings falling into the river.

Furthermore, he says the damage to his property is not caused by erosion because it only happens in times of river floods. On normal days the river ambles past his property with no problems.

Anyway, he says, rivers on the West Coast are what is called flood braided rivers and this is obviously why the then Labour government Transport Minister and the then Westland County Council agreed to install the 400 metres of rock protection works as part of the designations and which would have protected his and other properties after the bridge was built.

Ken Mehrtens says the designations were not changed which agreed to the rock protection works and that's a broken promise which nobody now wants to know about and is impacting on his physical and mental health.

He says when the bridge was built the local Council installed rock protection works to protect Hokitika town but he and other residents on the other side of the river were forgotten.

This correspondent has major concerns when Labour government Minister's and their bureaucrats, or any other elected politician for that matter, won't accept responsibility and be accountable or won't front-up and answer legitimate and reasonable questions which are of genuine concern to New Zealander's.

© Scoop Media

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