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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Zoning appeals

In today's Press (here) it is mentioned that on the 23rd a Green Zone resident received a letter from CERA advising his zoning appeal had been turned down: he was confirmed as being Green. On the same day his area of Burwood erupted into mud volcanoes and was awash with silt and water.

This raises serious issues about the zoning appeal process.

The first point to note is that the appeal process has yet to be made public by CERA (it isn't mentioned on their website and they are not responding to e-mails until the 4th of January). It possibly doesn't even exist in final form. Until the process is announced and scrutinised there is absolutely no certainty that the appeal process is accessible, fair or reasonable. At the moment it seems to be more in the nature of a secret tribunal.

The second point is the absence of access to information about how decisions are being made for particular areas or individual properties. On what criteria was a decision based? What weighting was applied to each of the criteria agreed by Cabinet**. This information needs to be available so that anyone contemplating an appeal has the opportunity to know how the original decision was reached, and an understanding of what they are appealing against. In some cases it may be clear that the grounds for appeal are not strong, while in others the reason for zoning will not be clear.

The damage in some areas on the 23rd, such as Burwood and Parklands, is a warning that Green Zone decisions may have been too general or overly weighted with non-technical criteria. Waiting months for a re-assessment of Parklands, for instance, cannot be assumed to give comfort or confidence to others who feel their zoning is inappropriate. And how will the uncertainties be resolved? Will the same people be involved in the reassessment? What will be done differently this time, compared to the previous assessment? Will it be any better? Where did the assessment fail? Why? Was it avoidable?

Friday's earthquake shows that not all the decisions of the past are vindicated. There is less confidence in the Green zoning than there was a week ago. Short of an open and informative process doubts will remain and can only increase. The Official Information Act was introduced to avoid secrecy such as this, the same Act that the Minister has been failing to honour. Now that it is clear that some of the decisions of the past are suspect, information must be made available to all who want to know.

An open appeal process, accompanied by access to all information that lead to a property being zoned, has to be available early in the new year.

** NOTE: The blog post for the 17th of September (here) covered how the cost-effectiveness of land remediation is measured. Here is part of that post:

What follows is extracted from para 8.1 of the Cabinet Minute of the 15th of August. A copy can be downloaded from the CERA website here.

    Determining the cost of remediation
    This cost is determined by adding the first three items in the list, then subtracting the fourth.
  1. Cost of land reinstatement to pre-September condition  plus
  2. The betterment cost (i.e. perimeter treatment and/or additional raising of land) plus
  3. Infrastructure replacement (see note 1) minus
  4. Decommissioning costs (infrastructure decommissioning and greening)
    Determining cost effectiveness
  1. If the cost of the above exceeds the improvement in the value of the damaged land (see note 2), remediation is not cost effective.
  2. If the cost of the above is less than the improvement in the value of the damaged land, remediation may be cost effective.
Note 1: Includes the infrastructure within the Orange Zones required to service the sub-zone area of interest (and excludes the cost to repair infrastructure required to service surrounding Green Zones)
Note 2: Despite the recent earthquake events, properties are likely to have some land value left. We assume there is 10% of the land value remaining in the properties, as indicated by the Valuer General.
It may be that when this Cabinet Paper was written (August 2011) the Minister for Earthquake Recovery, or more likely his officials and technical advisers, had an imperfect understanding of how to draw the boundary between Green and Red and were overly optimistic rather than prudent about where the lines went on the maps.

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