Properties on the Awatarariki fanhead in Matatā are to be vacated by March 31, 2021.
Independent commissioners have released their decision supporting two proposed plan changes aimed at avoiding loss of life on the Awatarariki fanhead in Matatā from a future debris flow event, such as the one in 2005.
The commissioners were appointed to hear submissions on the proposed changes to the Whakatāne District Council's district plan and Bay of Plenty Regional Council's regional natural resources plan which are intended to address the "unacceptably high" debris flow loss-of-life risk applying to properties on the Awatarariki Stream.
The decision will also prevent future development on the fanhead area and extinguish existing use rights for those living there currently.
Whakatāne District mayor Judy Turner acknowledged that addressing the debris flow risk to residents and property owners has been a long and difficult process.
"Many property owners have taken advantage of the opportunity provided by the voluntary managed retreat programme to start a new phase of their lives in a much safer location, without the continual stress of whether or not another debris flow may occur," she said.
Turner also acknowledged that some owners retained reservations about having to leave.
"Council elected members recognise the depth of feeling Awatarariki owners have for their properties and the weight this decision carries for them."
Marilyn Pearce, who has lived on her property at Matatā for 23 years, said she was "pretty shattered" by the decision.
She said they wanted to appeal to the Environment Court, but "with all the Covid-19 stuff, there was extra stress".
"I just think [the decision] should go on hold until it's all over," she said.
"It's just pressure, and if you don't take the money then it goes back [to the Government] and you don't get offered anything."
It's not "business as usual", Pearce said.
She didn't think another six months "would make that much difference" when it had already been 15 years since the floods in 2005.
"We don't really have a choice but to go to the Environment Court, this changes everything, for every New Zealander."
In their summary document, the independent commissioners stated a number of reasons for their decision, including statutory obligations the Whakatāne District and Bay of Plenty Regional councils had to act on behalf of communities to reduce or mitigate risk to life from natural hazards.
They said while Whakatāne District Council's debris flow risk assessment process for the Awatarariki fanhead was "robust" and was carried out in accordance with industry best practice, early warning systems did not provide "a realistic means of reducing the current intolerable risk of loss of life from future debris flows".
Allowing residents to remain in their homes "is not feasible", they said, and the wider "community risk" of allowing residential activity to continue "outweighs the perceived benefits" for the those who might wish to stay.
The regional council's natural resources plan change will remove existing use rights for 18 properties and require inhabited properties to be vacated, on or before March 31 next year.
Alongside the plan change processes, the Government, Whakatāne District Council and the Bay of Plenty Regional Council have co-funded a "managed retreat", enabling property owners to sell their homes at market rate and move to safer ground.
However, submitters have the right of appeal to the plan changes through the Environment Court.
An order waiving the commencement of the 30-day appeal period has been issued by the Environment Court to coincide with the lifting of the Covid-19 alert level 4 for the Bay of Plenty region in order to provide submitters with the ability to obtain access to resources and advice required in connection with the lodgement of appeals.