One year on from the Bella Vista Homes evacuation in Tauranga, reporter Scott Yeoman checks in with homeowners and local businesses affected.

Everything has changed for the families who were suddenly told to leave their homes.

And nothing has changed for the businesses left out of pocket by the company that built them – Bella Vista Homes.

One year ago today, the Tauranga City Council evacuated 21 Bella Vista properties at The Lakes.

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The building company had gone into voluntary liquidation a few months before, leaving behind unfinished houses and millions of dollars in outstanding debts to creditors.

The council began to assess all of the houses, many of which were occupied, and then on March 9, with a cyclone approaching the city, a warrant was issued to evacuate, "to avoid immediate danger".

The council said it had received advice from a geotechnical specialist that morning that the properties needed to be vacated and that an unretained slope was at risk of failing.

Some homeowners were phoned at work with the news, others read it via email, or arrived home to find a notice on their door.

A photo taken at the Bella Vista Homes development site at The Lakes on March 9 last year, the day of the evacuation. Photo / George Novak
A photo taken at the Bella Vista Homes development site at The Lakes on March 9 last year, the day of the evacuation. Photo / George Novak

What followed were many agonising months of waiting.

The homeowners waited for explanations about how and why this was happening. They waited for answers about their future, and assurances about their investments. They waited for their lives to return to normal.

Twelve months on, some of the questions remain unanswered, and the out-of-pocket creditors haven't seen a cent.

But many of the homeowners have managed to resettle, and are now beginning to move on.

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"Emotionally it took so much of a toll that I think there was a lot of healing that had to happen," Degen Prodger says.

He, his wife and their now 9-year-old daughter had been living in their Bella Vista house for about a year.

Like the other homeowners, the Prodgers moved from motel to motel during the tumultuous months that followed the evacuation, as meetings were held, further house assessments were done, legal action was threatened and launched, and decisions concerning a way forward were made.

Degen and his family are now living in their new home.

He says the past three months – since the council agreed to buy all the properties in a confidential $14 million settlement deal – have been about feeling stable and secure again.

And about rebuilding as a family.

"We are wanting to put it in the past because it sort of does come with a lot of pain and bad memories. Now we're just focusing on the future and just enjoying our life."

Ron and Sarah McDiarmid, who also owned one of the evacuated homes, are moving into their new house this week.

"It has taken us a year to get sorted, but there we are," Ron says.

After moving about nine times last year, they ended up renting at The Lakes, not far from their Bella Vista property. Their new home is in Ōmokoroa.

Ron says it is a bit cheaper out there. They couldn't afford to stay at The Lakes.

"So we have moved a little bit further than we'd liked to, but that's the way it goes, and we're quite happy with what we've got."

Ron McDiarmid at a protest outside Tauranga City Council offices last year. Photo / Andrew Warner
Ron McDiarmid at a protest outside Tauranga City Council offices last year. Photo / Andrew Warner

Ron says he and his wife see last year's drama as more-or-less history now.

However, it does still crop up now and again; they sometimes compare their new house with what they could have had.

"At the end of the day, we were happy with the [Bella Vista] house … it was a good home, and we looked forward to staying there, but that just wasn't to be the case."

Lee and Denese Konowe moved into their new home in Brookfield about a month ago.

Their health took a hammering last year.

Denese underwent a significant surgery that was, at least in part, incurred because of the stress, Lee says.

He is still waiting to be treated for a heart-related condition that began after the evacuation.

Lee says he visits a doctor weekly on average and has had at least 10 hospital visits, some with extended stays.

"So a year later, physically and emotionally, we're still both significantly impacted."

Denese and Lee Konowe outside their new house in Brookfield, bought after the Tauranga City Council settled with all 21 Bella Vista homeowners in November. Photo / George Novak
Denese and Lee Konowe outside their new house in Brookfield, bought after the Tauranga City Council settled with all 21 Bella Vista homeowners in November. Photo / George Novak

The last home the Konowes owned before their Bella Vista property was in Christchurch, where they went through dozens of strong earthquakes and aftershocks, before eventually selling at a loss to get out.

"So there's no doubt about the fact that we already had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) issues," Lee says.

He says they hope their new home will be their final one.

They looked at about a dozen houses at The Lakes before buying in Brookfield. Lee says driving past their old house would have been an unwelcome reminder.

He says the settlements with the council were predominately along legal and financial lines, and while those obligations have been met, the impact on their lives – physically, psychologically and emotionally – is not reparable by a legal document.

Lee says the greatest source of healing was the constant support and care from the Tauranga community. Other homeowners say the same.

Jenny and Damian Coffey have also bought in another area.

"Too many bad memories in The Lakes now," Jenny says.

She says they are building again and so are still in a rental home.

"We are slowly moving on from the ordeal that we have been through, but it's not been easy doing this."

Colin and Jan-Marie Mills are yet to buy another house.

They rent in Auckland, where they own a business; the Bella Vista property was their entry into the housing market after coming back from overseas.

They envisaged possibly moving to Tauranga one day.

Colin and Jan-Marie Mills speaking at a council meeting on June 6, the day councillors voted to buy the Bella Vista houses. Photo / John Borren
Colin and Jan-Marie Mills speaking at a council meeting on June 6, the day councillors voted to buy the Bella Vista houses. Photo / John Borren

Colin says they have glanced over some houses since the council settlement, but are still working out what's best for them from this point on.

He says the evacuation and the issues that followed compounded an already challenging year, "with the pressure and the uncertainly and just not knowing where it would leave us financially".

Now there is a big weight off their shoulders.

"That pressure of 'what's going to happen?' and trying to deal with having the house and having all the money tied up in it and all the uncertainties, and all the payments on mortgages and stuff – that's all gone."

George Trepte and his daughter Catherine, UK citizens living abroad, owned two of the 21 Bella Vista houses evacuated.

George says the properties were bought in April 2016 and before the evacuation one had just started being rented out and the other was about to be.

His daughter visits New Zealand occasionally, and he comes every year for months at a time. The idea was to rent their two properties out, and stay in one of them whenever they were in town.

Once they got their settlement from the council last year, George says he wanted to buy again.

"I wanted to purchase again up at The Lakes, but I now find myself unable to. I now find myself the wrong side of the Overseas Investment Office."

The Overseas Investment Amendment Act 2018 came into force on October 22, preventing certain overseas people from buying residential property in New Zealand.

George says he discovered a few weeks ago that he and his daughter do not qualify anymore.

"I looked at a section I'm interested in up at The Lakes, I thought, right, I'll get that, and then I went to the lawyers, and they said, 'just a minute, you can't do that'."

He says while he understands where the Government is coming from – and believes the law is "very sensible" – he finds their situation "unjust" and "a bit sad".

"I just felt it was a rough deal; that's all."

While the council's buy-out has given most of the Bella Vista homeowners a chance to move on, many businesses are still waiting to be paid.

The latest liquidators' report for Bella Vista Homes has the company owing more than $4.4 million to creditors.

A family-owned business based in Tauranga says it is owed more than $50,000 of that.

The owner, who does not want to be named, says no payments have been received and he expects a total loss, despite having a personal guarantee in place and a Personal Properties Security Register listing.

"We're not some big corporate. It affects everyone's personal life as well. It's not just obviously the financial hurt of the business; it means that personally, we've all taken a hit. Let alone the stress and heartache."

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Read more:
Bella Vista Homes saga: Liquidator investigates company's transactions
1.5m Bella Vista payment under investigation
Bella Vista report: $4 million owed - but just $28 in the bank
Four companies related to Bella Vista Homes put into liquidation
Bella Vista-related firms owe nearly $270,000: liquidators

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The owner says they've had to make decisions around whether to spend more money on lawyers.

"Which I've come to the conclusion that it's throwing good money after bad. So it's gutting; it's pretty devastating, really."

He says he went to a Bella Vista Homes creditors' meeting and saw a whole lot of local tradespeople there – "it's local business owners that are personally out of pocket as a result of this".

Big national companies like building supplies firm Carters (which claimed more than $1 million), and government departments like Inland Revenue (which claimed $679,877), are also among the creditors.

"Our numbers are no less significant, given the size of our businesses," the Tauranga business owner says.

The fenced off Bella Vista Homes development site at The Lakes, photographed this month. Photo / Andrew Warner
The fenced off Bella Vista Homes development site at The Lakes, photographed this month. Photo / Andrew Warner

Katikati Scaffolding is a creditor and its co-director Murray Fraser says they are owed about $40,000.

He says they have just written it off and tried to forget about it.

"We basically knew we weren't going to get any money, so we've never really bothered chasing it. It was going to be a bloody long shot if we did get anything out of it."

He says they have got on with their job and tried to get back to normal as soon as possible, but it did hurt them for a couple of months.

Murray says they are more cautious now and any new customers have to put a deposit down first. They ask for money up front and also check them out before doing any business.

"We don't take any risks anymore."

The ongoing liquidation process is not the only matter yet to be resolved.

A court case brought by the Tauranga City Council against several parties involved in the Bella Vista Homes development is due back in court on May 13.

More than 50 charges have been laid in total, and they are all being contested.

The council's internal investigation into its building inspection team in relation to the Bella Vista development, headed by retired judge Graeme Colgan, is also not finished.

It began in October last year, and it's still unclear what, if anything, of the Colgan report, will be released publicly when it is finally completed.

Meanwhile, the review by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) into the council's building control activities is all but done.

Paul Hobbs, the ministry's manager of building system assurance, says they are in the process of finalising the report on the review, and a release is "imminent".

As for the 21 houses that were evacuated on March 9 last year, the council is in the process of remediating and selling them off, which has sparked controversy from some members of the community.

The council says removal of the upper floors of the homes on Lakes Boulevard is expected to start this coming week, and be completed over the winter.

The Bella Vista saga continues.

Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.

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The Bella Vista Homes development at The Lakes, photographed this month, as the council remediates and sells off the houses. Photo / Andrew Warner
The Bella Vista Homes development at The Lakes, photographed this month, as the council remediates and sells off the houses. Photo / Andrew Warner

Timeline

•Nov 30, 2017: Bella Vista Homes goes into voluntary liquidation, leaving behind unfinished houses and millions in outstanding debts to creditors.
•Mar 9, 2018: Tauranga City Council orders the emergency evacuation of 21 Bella Vista houses at The Lakes.
•Jun 6, 2018: Tauranga councillors vote to buy the 21 homes, after further assessments, meetings and threats of legal action.
•Jun 6, 2018: An independent investigation into the council's role in the development, by former High Court judge Paul Heath QC, finds the council acted correctly in some areas but failed in others.
•Aug 2, 2018: The council files charges in Tauranga District Court against parties involved in the Bella Vista Homes development, relating to non-compliance with the Building Act.
•Sep 3, 2018: The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment announces an investigation into the council's building control activities.
•Oct 10, 2018: The council announces an internal investigation into its building inspection team, headed by retired judge Graeme Colgan.
•Nov 1, 2018: The council settles with all 21 homeowners, spending $14 million buying the houses (offset by an insurance payment of $10.5 million).

Read more: Big Read: The Bella Vista Homes nightmare