Lower Hutt family frustrated after council fails to notify of major building development on doorstep

Sam and Hanna.
Sam and Hanna. Photo credit: RNZ / Harry Lock

By Harry Lock for RNZ

A Lower Hutt family has accused the council of running roughshod over them, by prioritising houses over their wellbeing.

The family is concerned about a medium-density development being built next door, on which they had no say, and the construction of which they say is threatening their safety.

It comes after Hutt City Council brought forward a controversial plan change last year which allowed more dense housing to be built in the city.

Concerns were raised at the time around what it would do to native trees, but with developments now being given the green light, its impact is being felt on families and communities who disagree with its intentions.

At the time, the Hutt City Mayor, Campbell Barry, said residents would not "see medium density communities sprout up overnight - this is about the planned and gradual evolution of our city over a long period of time".

For Hana and Sam Carpenter, a medium-density development is now a very present part of their life, with one being built in the lot next door to them.

The construction - six two-storey dwellings with three car parks, utilising a shared driveway - is being undertaken by Williams Corporation, which is responsible for 35 projects around the country.

Left out of the conversation, with no recourse

Frustration over the development began when the Carpenters were excluded from any conversation with either the developers or the council.

"It's just the lack of communication I guess from the developer in the first place," Sam Carpenter said.

"Council's guidelines say that when you apply for a resource consent, you should talk to and get the consent of - if possible - all of the affected parties.

"We never heard from them [Williams Corporation] once, they've never contacted us voluntarily, ever," Hana Carpenter said.

According to Hutt City Council, while their officers have been "responsive" to the Carpenters, it is not their responsibility to inform them, or indeed consult with them, on the project.

That is because it was found the development did not affect them in more than a minor way - a legal term with specific parameters around what constitutes "minor". The Carpenters said they disagreed with the assessment.

In a statement, the council said responsibility to communicate with residents rests with the developers, and while they encourage "all developers to talk to their neighbours ... We cannot force them to consult."

But the managing director of Williams Corporation, Matthew Horncastle, said he did not agree with going through that process, because of the difficulties it throws up.

"An engagement process is called a notified consent, and every time we've done a notified consent, essentially what it just comes down to is bribery.

"You have to say to the neighbour, 'I'll give you $30,000 if you sign the form for me', and that just makes houses even less affordable."

It means Sam and Hana Carpenter have no other option but to seek legal advice, and try and go through the High Court to appeal their non-notification.

"They make a decision, and that's it, what if we don't agree with that decision?" Hana Carpenter said. "That's too bad, unless we've got thousands and thousands of dollars, that's too bad."

"There's no recourse," Sam Carpenter said. "If council decides you're not notified, you basically have to go to the High Court to get a judicial review, and spend tens of thousands of dollars."

Housing over family's welfare

Plan Change 43 was introduced last year, and was designed to address serious challenges.

"Currently, there is a shortage of housing in Lower Hutt, especially one and two bedroom dwellings," the council said in their statement. "At the same time, the Housing and Business Development Capacity Assessment for Lower Hutt suggests the city will need to make room for up to an additional 9600 households between 2017 and 2047."

Sam Carpenter said he agreed with the intentions behind it, but disagreed with its implementation.

"What's driving this, to put it bluntly, [is] ideology. Everyone recognises the need for more housing, but it's just the way it's gone about here that's quite questionable."

In response, the council said they were using the Resource Management Act.

"Each resource consent application is decided on its merits with consideration given to what is proposed, the context of the site and the surrounding area."

With housing in short supply in Hutt City, Williams Corporation Matthew Horncastle said his company were trying to address the situation, by providing affordable, alternative housing.

But with the development breaching the council's district plan in a number of ways, Sam Carpenter said it would affect ratepayers faith in the council to implement their own plan.

Concerns over safety around the site

While the long-term concerns are yet to be resolved, both Sam and Hana Carpenter have raised concerns about the activity on-site.

The development is currently on hold, after the council issued an abatement notice when earthworks began without consent.

Hana Carpenter said the proximity of the hole to their driveway, and the lack of a secure fence is putting her children's lives in danger.

"I'm not being dramatic by saying that," she said. "They have literally allowed a massive cavernous hole to be dug right up to the edge of our driveway, and just taken our fence away. They have just shown a total disregard of safety."

She said one of their children has down syndrome, which makes it even more precarious.

"His main ambition in life is to escape our house. That's an attribute of people with down syndrome, in terms of wanting to get out and explore, and he has no road awareness."

Williams Corporation has put the abatement notice down to an administrative error.

But for the duration of the project, their managing director, Matthew Horncastle, maintained the safety of the family is paramount.

"We took down our fence on our property. They were notified as we took that down. And then we replaced it with a construction fence, with extra controls, because of their child. So we've put boards under the construction fence, scrim, and locks on the gate."

He said the project manager has been visiting the site every day, and an independent health and safety inspector weekly.

It is not the first time Williams Corporation has attracted unwanted attention, with residents in the past complaining about their activities.

They are also behind four other approved developments in Hutt City.

Hutt City Council said they have received complaints from residents for three of those projects, but they said that is to be expected when it means increased density.

It is a similar picture in Christchurch, where 16 projects are in the works - the council there says they have also received complaints from residents, mainly relating to density, design and use for Airbnbs.

Horncastle said he understands the residents' feelings, and while he tries to engage with them, it is a difficult job.

"I understand the tension in communities, I understand why that causes tension, and why some people don't want their communities to change.

"But the house prices in New Zealand have just got ridiculous, and they're getting more ridiculous every year, and we have to be building smaller, more affordable houses so we can get more Kiwis into home ownership."

He said currently their market is 50 percent mum and dad investors, 25 percent first home buyers, and 25 percent downsizers.