Newsroom Special Inquiry

Drowning dreams: A 167-lot subdivision

One of three recent coastal developments in the Coromandel Peninsula that Newsroom studied, a 167-lot subdivision on the Purangi Estuary at Cooks Beach is going ahead despite advice it could be flooded after 2m of sea level rise

Three years before approving new housing in Thames and Whitanga Waterways, Thames-Coromandel District Council wrote to flood experts at Waikato Regional Council asking about a different subdivision.

The district council was concerned about the risk to a 167-lot subdivision abutting the Purangi Estuary at Cooks Beach, known as Longreach. As the organisation in charge of natural hazards for the area, the regional council had access to the best flooding information and experts.

In October 2014, Rick Liefting, the regional council’s natural hazards team leader, told the district council that he and other senior regional council leaders recommended testing the subdivision against 2m of sea level rise.

“While there is currently no formal guidance on using 2m for Greenfield developments, the guidance should be taken as current ‘best practice’, based on information provided by NIWA (the crown-owned environmental science agency that specialises in climate change),” he said, in an email released to Newsroom after an official information request.

Liefting supplied maps showing parts of the subdivision could be flooded after 2m of sea level rise.

Liefting also shared a letter in support of the 2m guidance from the region’s principal policy adviser for regional strategy, Blair Dickie. That letter foreshadowed the resistance to come. “Such a move will undoubtedly create a negative response from the proponents of the Cooks Beach subdivision, however, they will not be the ones that will be affected should the development go ahead without meaningful consideration of sea level rise”, said Dickie.

Images from Waikato Regional Council's coastal inundation tool showing flooding after 1/100-year flood.

“It will be the property owners of the future (potentially after properties have been bought and sold a number of times) that will be physically affected,” he said. “As an aside, it seems inconceivable in logic that we should place considerable store in collecting evidence upon which to base our resource management policies yet when confronted with opposition to the best evidence available capitulate to an extent that could potentially leave future communities at risk … Please do keep me in the loop as this is an interesting “case study” of climate change response policy implementation.”

In February 2015, the district council emailed Liefting, explaining why it would not take his advice. It was going to factor in 1m.

“It has come to the point where we have taken on board all comments received so far from the applicants, Tonkin and Taylor, WRC and internally here at TCDC,” said the district council’s email. Among the reasons given was that the district council didn’t think it needed to look ahead more than 100 years when planning for sea levels. It’s clear from the discussion that the councils did not think that 2m higher seas would happen this century.

The email also mentioned the lack of updated guidance from the Ministry. “There is national guidance on this matter from Ministry for the Environment and the proposal is generally consistent with this guidance.”

“Given the timing of the application, a decision must be reached on this matter and it would appear that updated guidance will not be forthcoming within this timeframe,” it said, adding. “I appreciate this is no doubt disappointing from your perspective.”

The regional council didn’t challenge the decision. Liefting now feels the district council was in a difficult spot, given the lack of clearer guidance. “It was always going to be a tricky one.”

For its part, the district council says it won’t change its approach to incorporate a higher sea level until a new government guide is released.

The developer, Longreach, declined to comment for the story.

Its marketing brochure says that Longreach “presents a unique opportunity to own one of the few remaining waterfront properties at Cooks Beach. Each site is set within this intimate and historic coastal settlement, perfectly located adjacent to the picturesque Purangi salt water estuary”.

See here to try out Waikato Regional Council's coastal inundation tool. 

Read more: Billions at stake as govt mulls sea level rules

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