Township doomed as locals given boot

By Isaac Davison

Residents such as Rachael Thomas, here with her children Jason and Tessa, have been told they have to leave their homes in Little Waihi. Photo / Alan Gibson
Residents such as Rachael Thomas, here with her children Jason and Tessa, have been told they have to leave their homes in Little Waihi. Photo / Alan Gibson

A community in an idyllic coastal spot has been told it must leave within a year, abandoning baches which have stood on the site for 65 years.

At least 29 homeowners in Little Waihi, to the east of Tauranga near Maketu in the Bay of Plenty, have had their yearly lease terminated by the commercial arm of the Arawa iwi, which owns the land. More than 120 people will be affected.

Many of the baches skirting the estuary are owned by beneficiaries and pensioners, who say they will have nowhere else to live.

Emotions run deep - residents the Weekend Herald spoke to said they would burn their homes to the ground rather than let Te Arawa Management take them over.

The company said it was removing the residents because their poor wastewater systems were causing serious environmental damage to the estuary.

The Western Bay of Plenty District Council plans to build a modern sewage system next year at the earliest, but the settlement uses septic tanks.

Residents said they signed a "flimsy" licence to occupy, but feel the eviction came without notice or a clear reason, and under severe terms.

It would uproot Maori and Pakeha who have called the estuary home for four generations.

Jackaileen Elsworth, a second-generation resident, said: "My grandchildren's placenta is planted in the soil here. That means everything ... because this is their roots."

Working part-time but "without a cent to her name", she said her only money was in her house. If Te Arawa forced her to leave her home next April, she would burn it. "I'd far sooner help rectify the environmental problem or pay more rates. But under the current circumstances, my house would be an exercise for the Maketu Volunteer Fire Brigade."

Te Arawa director Roku Mihinui said he could not comment until he had spoken directly with the community.

He said the council had been trying to rectify the wastewater problems for five years, and residents knew their baches were damaging the estuary.

The trust's termination of leases has divided the community, as a few elderly residents will be able to stay.

"What are the criteria here?" asked one resident. "It seems as though they've just allowed the elderly to stay in the hope they'll soon pass away."

A Te Arawa source said the residents were technically squatters, and the council was concerned Little Waihi was becoming a run-down, shoddy settlement.

The source said the council and trust had turned a blind eye to Little Waihi, but could no longer ignore the illegal structures and environmental and social problems.

Homeowners felt the lack of consultation from Te Arawa Management was inexcusable.

They knew they could be removed eventually - most were on one-year licences - but in a community meeting held by the trust last year it was not mentioned that licences to occupy would be terminated.

Few residents expected to salvage their homes. Buildings could be moved with the trust's permission. But most baches were too old to shift.

Lawyer Michael Sharp, who specialises in Maori land issues, said the iwi was entitled to any buildings that could not be removed.

Some residents said they had recently made costly renovations.

Barbara Kiri did $15,000 of work on her bach over summer as she planned to retire in Little Waihi in July.

Her father, Alan Wilson, built one of the original four baches in 1945.

"He put in the retaining walls, built the road and supported Te Arawa."

Ms Kiri's daughter Jolene Kiri tearfully told the Weekend Herald she had hoped her children would learn to swim and fish in the estuary as she did.

"If this happens and we lose the house ... I will become an Australian citizen and never set foot back in New Zealand again.

"I will tear up my passport ... that's how strongly I feel."

FAMILY TO BE LEFT HOMELESS AFTER ORDER TO LEAVE ESTUARY

Rachael Thomas has struggled to sleep since she received a letter which ended her right to live on the edge of the estuary at Little Waihi.

In 11 months, her large family will vacate the home after being given marching orders by the landowners Te Arawa Management.

The 34-year-old's property is a corner of paradise. The back garden juts out into the estuary, which is sparkling at full tide. Her five children play on the sprawling lawn, and fish and swim in view of their mother, watching from the kitchen.

Ms Thomas knew her right to live in the settlement was limited, but never expected to be forced out in her lifetime. "My grandfather died on this property. He'll be turning in his grave now. I had hoped to die here, and my children too."

She said that legally her house "didn't exist". It was constructed on reserve land and she did not have a letterbox number. She paid monthly rates to the iwi, and signed a licence to occupy, for roughly $1000 a year.

She moved to the settlement with her parents when she was one, and has vivid recollections of horse-riding, fishing for flounder, and bathing in the estuary. She cannot imagine living anywhere else.

Her family are part of Te Arawa. "This I am ashamed to say, if this is how they treat their people."

The eviction notice is the latest blow in what has been a tough year for her family. Her parents were killed in a car crash in January, and her husband has just returned to work after a workplace accident kept him at home for two years. "I don't need this. I've poured money into this place, and we will have nowhere to go."

Ms Thomas plans to take her children to the next trust board meeting. "I don't know how to tell [the trust] how I feel. But I will demand that they explain this to my kids."

- NZ Herald

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