They were to be their dream homes, writes Scott Yeoman. But this was no fairytale.

Jenny Coffey plays out the drama of March 9 in her head almost every day.

"It's the day where everything changed."

The Tauranga clinical nurse manager said it started the same as any other day.

She and her husband Damian, a tutor, went to work as usual and their four dogs went to the kennels.

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The first she knew something was wrong was when a neighbour phoned her at work about 3pm to tell her they were being evacuated.

"I told him that he was talking bulls*** and not to worry, that he could come and stay with us. And then another neighbour rang me and that's when I literally downed tools and left work in a cloud of dust."

Jenny got home to find a notice on the door from Tauranga City Council to evacuate their home: "Warrant to avoid immediate danger."

She tried to call Damian but he wasn't answering, so she rushed to his work, tears streaming down her face.

"I was just panicking, going 'I need you, you need to come home, we're being evacuated, I don't understand, I need you'.

"He was like 'what do you mean? What are you going on about?' Like I was crazy."

The couple rushed home to 311 Lakes Boulevard, the home they moved into in December 2016 with a full code of compliance.

They had feelings of "anger and disbelief", Jenny said.

Jenny and Damian Coffey's Bella Vista home at The Lakes was one of those evacuated on March 9. Photo / George Novak
Jenny and Damian Coffey's Bella Vista home at The Lakes was one of those evacuated on March 9. Photo / George Novak

When the Bay of Plenty Times arrived at Lakes Boulevard that afternoon, the Coffeys were standing on their driveway, looking like they didn't know what to do.

Damian was shouting and pacing back and forth. He took off running down the street to look for someone from the council, looking for answers.

Jenny, clearly still in shock, stopped to talk.

"We've been told that we have to take all of our stuff for a week and what does that actually mean?"

Other residents were also arriving home to find notices on their doors.

Damian says now that it felt like their whole world was gone in one second.

"Still feels that way.

"It definitely was one of the worst days of my life hands down."

Jenny said they knew there were issues with other Bella Vista houses in the neighbourhood, but assumed their home wasn't affected because of its code of compliance.

"How naïve of us when we look back on it."

Where it began

The now-fenced off Bella Vista Homes development site at The Lakes. Photo / File
The now-fenced off Bella Vista Homes development site at The Lakes. Photo / File

The road to the March 9 evacuation started even before November 30, when Bella Vista Homes went into voluntary liquidation.

The company left behind 30 unfinished houses and millions of dollars in outstanding debts to creditors, some in other parts of the country.

Large numbers of building subcontractors and trade suppliers were impacted.

By mid-March this year, liquidators had received total claims of $3.7 million.

Following the liquidation, Tauranga City Council started to assess all the homes, including inspections by building and engineering specialists, to find out what the homes needed to be compliant with the Building Code.

Then early on March 9, the council was told by a geotechnical specialist that 21 properties needed to be vacated.

Tauranga City Council chief executive Garry Poole issued the warrant to evacuate the properties so emergency works could be carried out.

He said part of the reason for the urgency was the potential arrival of Cyclone Hola, but an unretained slope in the area was also at risk of failing.

Thirteen families were affected by the warrant.

It was later announced, in April, that former High Court judge Paul Heath QC would undertake a thorough investigation into the city council's role in the Bella Vista Homes development at Lakes Boulevard and Aneta Way.

Heath later said his role was to establish what the council did and did not do, and whether it fell below the standards required, not why.

Heath's report was released on Wednesday.

Building experts weigh in

The Bay of Plenty Times spoke with experts in the building industry soon after the evacuation, some of whom were connected to the case.

One said contrary to what council staff had said, there were consented plans for retaining walls.

He said it was unusual to allow homes to be built before retaining walls, and although the council had said it didn't have the power to stop builders, it did inspect each step of the building process.

Another expert said consent for retaining walls was issued, but the staging of the work meant walls originally proposed couldn't be built because construction progressed at different rates.

He said it would have been logical to build retaining walls first.

A geotechnical engineer agreed it was best practice for retaining walls to go in before building started.

In most jobs, he said, a geotechnical engineer would work with a project manager and developer to decide a time when earthworks were done, then retaining.

The council would be relying on the developer, project manager and engineer to make sure the sequence was done right, he said.

But that did not always happen.

If finances were tight, sometimes a developer tried to do a bit of project management themselves.

A chief executive of a consumer advocacy group was also amazed the properties were built without a retaining wall and he found it strange the council said it could not influence the sequencing.

Read more here: Heartbreak and homework for evacuated residents of one Tauranga subdivision

The meetings

Some of the evacuated Bella Vista homeowners at a second meeting with the council on March 22. Photo / File
Some of the evacuated Bella Vista homeowners at a second meeting with the council on March 22. Photo / File

On March 13, a few days after the Bella Vista evacuation, the homeowners were told it could take two weeks to assess their homes.

Experts said the problems were "far worse than first thought".

Three buildings were deemed dangerous and required urgent work.

Engineers and geotechnical experts were going to reassess the properties and from there, the council would work with owners and residents on a plan for access to the properties.

The council was paying for temporary accommodation for the residents across Tauranga.

At that meeting, BCD group civil engineering manager Colin Jacobson said he was asked to urgently review 16 Bella Vista homes.

His inspection of three unlined properties found all were unsafe.

Structural defects included incorrectly installed roof bracing fixings and lack of bottom plate fixings under load-bearing walls.

"In my 30-odd years as an engineering professional, I've never seen such poor workmanship."

AECOM principal geotechnical engineer Mike Trigger had recommended the evacuation.

At the same meeting, he said foundation slabs of some houses could be seen on top of eroding landfill, and large cracks in the fill could mean deeper problems underneath.

His March 9 report found emergency works installed before Cyclone Gita earlier in the year were ineffective at controlling water.

The report also said WorkSafe would not allow the council's contractor to access a slope below 5 Aneta Way before Cyclone Gita.

Tauranga City Council chief executive Garry Poole said the absence of retaining walls was brought to the attention of builders and Bella Vista "many, many times" but said the council could not demand a "certain sequencing of the building process".

He said the Building Act did not require or empower the council to enforce building of the retaining wall before the build.

Four of the 21 Bella Vista homes had code compliance certificates issued. However, council staff said none of those building consents required a retaining wall to be constructed.

On March 22, in the second meeting with the council, homeowners discovered they would not be able to return home for at least another three weeks as more problems had been identified.

The new issues included geotechnical, structural and building compliance problems.

Initial advice was that two of the homes had the same structural issues as three buildings previously deemed dangerous.

On one of the properties, tests had also shown the basement wall was not able to support water pressure loads.

The basement walls were designed to withstand the pressure of dry dirt but because the drainage at the site was inadequate, it placed a heavier load on the walls and presented a risk.

The assessment of design for the other building's wall showed it was able to withstand the pressure, but engineers needed to confirm if what had been built was the same as what had been designed.

All but two of the buildings at the development had this type of basement wall and would need to be checked for safety.

On top of all that, the residents and owners would later find out that after April 20, they would need to find their own alternative accommodation if required.

The council provided the third update in a meeting on April 17.

Homeowners received the worst news to date on that day – their houses were unable to be re-occupied.

Most of the properties had been declared dangerous.

Building compliance expert Rose McLaughlan said none of the buildings were code compliant – despite four having been issued with code of compliance certificates by the council.

McLaughlan said many of the defects may not be feasible or cost-effective to fix, due to the nature of the soil, problems associated with uncontrolled fill and sub-surface erosion.

She concluded that remediating the land and repairing some foundations and slabs could be virtually impossible.

Based on the findings of expert geotechnical, structural and building compliance reports, the council decided all 21 properties were dangerous and affected, or deemed to be affected because of their proximity to dangerous buildings.

Poole said some owners took possession of their properties before Building Code compliance certificates were issued, and had been living in the incomplete homes.

After the April 17 meeting, the council met with owners individually.

On April 20, the council stopped paying homeowners the accommodation supplement.

To receive additional help, residents would have to show they had exhausted all other avenues for financial assistance, including insurance claims and requesting a deferral of mortgage payments.

They were also asked to provide evidence of losses.

The council said payments were ratepayer-funded and costs needed to be monitored closely.

Read more: Cost of Bella Vista saga to Tauranga City Council reaches $500,000

Three of the Bella Vista homes at Aneta Way, which were previously ruled as unliveable in the April 17 meeting, were later cleared to be reoccupied on new advice from the council's structural experts and legal adviser.

They were no longer considered dangerous and/or affected.

The three buildings had previously been referred to as being affected due to the potential for wind to lift roofs off other homes nearby, or, they had not been invasively tested.

One of those three homes has since been reoccupied.

The Prodgers

Degen Prodger was the only evacuated Bella Vista homeowner to return home. He says it was a temporary move. Photo / John Borren
Degen Prodger was the only evacuated Bella Vista homeowner to return home. He says it was a temporary move. Photo / John Borren

That one home belongs to Degen Prodger and his wife.

Degen said the house had final council sign-off, but no code of compliance, and they had been living there about a year when they were evacuated.

His wife found the note on their door and phoned him at work.

"She was upset, stressed and I couldn't believe it.''

Things only got harder after that for the couple and their 8-year-old daughter.

"What made it worse was that the evacuation notice was because of the cyclone and when the cyclone came to nothing, they kept us out."

They moved from motel to motel and back again seven times. Degen, who is a teacher, got sick.

"My daughter was crying a lot – just, 'I want to go home' – and at one point you're sort of feeling like, 'Oh man, am I able to do my job properly? Oh my goodness, is our marriage going to be okay?'"

The final move was back home, after the council cleared it for reoccupation.

Degen emphasised that them moving back home was "temporary". He said that made settling back in difficult.

"When we arrived back home, my daughter said: 'I'm not going to unpack my bag because the man's just going to make us shift again.' So that was pretty hard to hear."

But it did mean the family could have their daughter's 9th birthday at home.

"She wanted to have her very first slumber party and that wouldn't have happened if we'd been in a motel or some rental or something like that."

Degen said being the only residents back home was strange.

They talk about it being "like a ghost town" with only security guards as neighbours.

He said he made sure (and confirmed) that his family going back was not going to compromise a decision that was made down the track.

The move home had helped provide some closure, Degen said.

"We're coming to grips with the fact that we're probably going to lose our house. So we're quite fortunate in that we get to do that while being in it."

Danny Cancian's side of the story

On March 9, after visiting the homes of the evacuated residents, the Bay of Plenty Times drove up the road to question Danny Cancian, former director of Bella Vista Homes.

Cancian lives near the 21 properties.

After no answer at the front door, the Bay of Plenty Times waited at the bottom of the driveway for him.

He came bounding down a bit later asking if we were looking for him.

He told us he had tried to finish the homes but faced roadblocks dealing with the city council.

Cancian has always blamed the failure of his company on delays caused by the council, along with a lack of profitability and him buying out his business partner.

Read more:
$1.5m Bella Vista payment under investigation
Bella Vista Homes saga: Liquidator investigates company's transactions

That evening it was no different.

"We tried to finish everything. Absolutely 100 per cent tried to finish it and council just wouldn't let us go ahead, they just wouldn't let us get traction," he said.

Cancian said Bella Vista had consents to build the homes but was constantly being sent requests for information from the council.

Bella Vista Homes was one of the reasons why Tauranga City Council had previously ordered a $60,000 independent review of its building services department.

Accounting and professional services firm BDO looked into the length of time to process building consent applications and frustrations with repeated requests for more information.

BDO's report revealed a single building consent application by Bella Vista generated 81 requests for information.

BDO found no evidence of deliberate obstruction by the council in its dealings with Bella Vista, and its inspection of council consent files did not constitute an audit or forensic examination.

However, it did not review every aspect of the allegations or evidence provided by Bella Vista.

When asked on March 9 if he felt remorse or any guilt about the families having to leave their homes, Cancian said: "Absolutely. I feel really sorry for those poor people. But what do I do?"

Cancian said Worksafe came in and shut them down.

A Worksafe spokeswoman disputed that.

She said prohibition notices related to scaffolding and the dangerous excavation of a trench, and did not prevent any other work being undertaken.

One point which Cancian and the council have agreed on is retaining walls were not required as a first step. Cancian has said walls weren't in his contracts at all.

"We sold house and land packages. It was just one big hillside."

Cancian has also said he offered all of the homeowners the option of Bella Vista trying to finish the building for free.

The Stewarts

Andre Stewart, wife Chloe, daughter Miela and son Asher have a home in The Lakes which is only half-completed. Photo / File
Andre Stewart, wife Chloe, daughter Miela and son Asher have a home in The Lakes which is only half-completed. Photo / File

Andre Stewart, his wife Chloe, and their two young children might have been in their first home by now.

They bought the house and land in mid-2016 from Bella Vista Homes and Andre said it took a year for the council to grant building consent.

Work started in September 2017 and Bella Vista went into liquidation in late November.

Andre said he found out about the evacuation via email on March 9.

He called around and offered help to those in their homes.

"I was really gutted for those that had been kicked out and I was pretty pissed off about our situation."

After the liquidation, Andre had been working to finish the house.

He was getting to the point of finding builders and drawing up a contract to finish the build when he was told to stop the work. The building is still not weathertight.

Andre said he was disappointed about the whole process and he and his family were struggling.

"It's had a huge effect on our relationship, our children as well."

Final stand

Jenny Coffey, with support from husband Damian, was one of the homeowners who addressed the council on Wednesday morning. Photo / John Borren
Jenny Coffey, with support from husband Damian, was one of the homeowners who addressed the council on Wednesday morning. Photo / John Borren

Homeowners who addressed the council publicly on Wednesday called for the council to buy their homes for a fair market value as if there were no defects and to compensate them for their emotional distress.

Jenny Coffey, with support from husband Damian, was one of those who spoke.

On Tuesday night, ahead of her speech, Jenny told the Bay of Plenty Times she still could not believe this was happening to them.

"I feel like we're living someone else's life. When can I wake up from this nightmare?"

She said it was tough being away from her dogs for five weeks and so was having to sign up for a rental "when you've put all your money into your own property".

Jenny said they were definitely out of pocket and were paying two sets of bills.

She said the support from the Tauranga community had been "amazing" and "humbling" and they really appreciated that.

Damian said people had offered to cook dinners and lend them their vehicles to help with the move.

"People just falling over themselves to help people. That's pretty awesome."

He said he and Jenny just wanted to get on with their lives now.

"This has been the most hurtful thing that's ever been done. The amount of pressure that it's put on our lives, our marriage. The stress – everything – it's just ... man, life's too short."

***
Note: On Wednesday afternoon, June 6, Tauranga councillors voted in principle to buy the 21 Bella Vista Homes which were part of the failed subdivision at The Lakes.

The council will now look at beginning negotiations with individual homeowners.

Read all about that council decision here.

Timeline

Liquidation – November 30, 2017
Evacuation – March 9, 2018
Meeting 1 – March 13
Meeting 2 – March 22
Meeting 3 – April 17
Final council decision announced – June 6