Thirteen years after a debris flow spewed mud, trees, rocks and water over parts of Matatā, a commissioner will determine whether Awatarariki residents can stay or go from the homes.

Proposed changes to the Whakatāne District Council's District Plan and Bay of Plenty Regional Council's Regional Natural Resources Plan, which aim to address the unacceptably high debris flow loss-of-life risk applying to properties on the Awatarariki Stream fanhead in Matatā, have now been publicly notified.

The proposed District Plan change would change the residential zoning of 45 properties (34 of which are privately-owned) assessed as having a high loss-of-life risk and stop any future development in the fanhead area.

The proposed Regional Natural Resources Plan change would remove existing use rights for 18 properties and require the properties to be vacated, within a specified timeframe.

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The Matatā township (24km west of Whakatāne) was struck by devastating debris flows in May 2005, following extremely heavy rainfall in the steep catchments behind the coastal town.

The most destructive debris flow was from the Awatarariki Stream, at the western end of Matatā, which saw an estimated 300,000 cubic metres of rocks, wooden debris and mud flow through the urban area at the base of the catchment. Homes and properties in the path of the debris flow were either destroyed or badly damaged and it was very fortunate there were no fatalities.

A series of engineering options to address the risk of future debris flows were investigated, but this approach was abandoned in 2012, when expert advice confirmed there was no viable engineering solution.

The Whakatāne District Council has since sought to reduce the high loss-of-life risk through planning provisions, as it is required to do under the terms of the Resource Management Act 1991 (and subsequent amendments); and the Bay of Plenty Regional Council's Regional Policy Statement.

To ensure that all interested parties have time to consider the plan change detail and prepare submissions, the councils have extended the submission timeframe from the statutory 20 working days to 90 days.

All submissions and evidence presented will be heard by expert, independent commissioners, who will decide on the plan changes and any alterations required.

Hearings are likely to be scheduled in early-2019, with decisions announced within two months. That would then be followed by an appeal period, a mediation process for any appeals lodged and, potentially, an Environment Court hearing.

Alongside the plan change processes, the Whakatāne District Council has prepared a business case and acquisition strategy to support a managed retreat from the high risk area.

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District council, regional council and Government representatives are working together to identify options and potential funding sources for a managed retreat and property purchase package.