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Angry Matata residents are vowing to stay put as they face being forced from their homes for the second time in less than two years.

"We're in our house and we're staying here," Bill Whalley said yesterday.

Mr Whalley and his wife Pam are one of six Matata families facing the prospect of having to leave their homes for a second time.

Eighteen months after rivers of debris and boulders laid waste to large pockets of the small Bay of Plenty town, the families are awaiting a legal decision that could force them to quit their homes until further work is carried out.

"They're saying that our house is not safe to live in, but they've got it wrong," Mr Whalley said.

He and the others moved back into their homes, none of which suffered serious damage, at the beginning of the year.

They believed they had approval from Whakatane District Council, but in September they received letters from the council saying it was concerned their houses remained dangerous and was seeking a "legal determination" on the point.

The letters said if the buildings were deemed at risk to any person or neighbouring property, the council could require them to "remain unoccupied". But Mr Whalley said he and his wife would refuse to move, after spending more than $100,000 restoring their house.

Their neighbours, Tom and Isabel Hooper, face the same prospect. Mrs Hooper, 75, said the stress was immense for her and her 86-year-old World War II veteran husband.

"They [the council] put all the services on for us, cleared the road, connected the power and water," she said. "They said they did it so we could come back to our homes, which we did, and now they're having another go at us."

Notices that deemed buildings structurally unsound were placed on 57 properties after the May 2005 disaster. Most buildings were demolished.

But the owners of the six affected homes still have notices attached to their properties, despite receiving engineering certificates to the contrary and council approval to return.

Council recovery manager Haydn Read said in the aftermath of the disaster the council had acted in good faith and tried to get people back in their homes as quickly as possible. It had emerged only later, when people whose homes were demolished began applying for consents to rebuild, that the council needed a legal determination of risk for the six properties.

He sympathised with the homeowners but said the council had a duty of care under the Local Government Act to ensure people did not live in high-risk areas.

"It's a horrible situation for everybody. Nobody's enjoying this process by any stretch of the imagination," he said.

The Department of Housing and Building must establish whether the houses are dangerous.

Determination manager John Gardiner said the department had 60 working days to make a draft finding once submissions from all parties were received. "We want to get it out as soon as we can because of the angst the residents are under."

Kay Fergusson, another of the affected property-owners, said: "If he [Mr Gardiner] decides that we have to go, we're not going. You don't walk away from your home a second time."

Mr Read said the final determination could also affect consents for property-owners wanting to rebuild, but was the last "crunchy issue" before a controversial debris dam proposed as one of the mitigation projects to protect Matata from future disaster is built.

Construction is subject to consent and is not expected to start until 2008.