Call for policy flexibility

Building owners and experts want more flexibility from the Dunedin City Council as it considers a new policy to improve the earthquake resistance of Dunedin's ageing buildings.

The council's hearing panel has also moved to allay fears the policy could spell the end for some of Dunedin's historic churches, by signalling changes to some requirements.

The panel, chaired by Cr Kate Wilson, yesterday considered 23 submissions on its proposed policy on dangerous, insanitary and earthquake-prone buildings.

The policy would update the council's 2007 policy and encourage building strengthening to improve public safety.

Among provisions is a requirement for building owners to upgrade properties to 34% of new building standards, once certain trigger points - such as a building's age, condition or another upgrade project - were activated.

The Otago Foundation Trust, which owns all Presbyterian churches in Dunedin, has warned parishes would be unable to pay for strengthening work, and might be forced to abandon or demolish buildings.

Panel members deliberating yesterday, however, agreed to changes, including raising one trigger point for strengthening work - based on the value of other significant improvements also being carried out - from $100,000 to $400,000.

The change could alleviate some church concerns and those of the University of Otago, which also worried about the cost of building work, council chief building control officer Neil McLeod said.

However, there was agreement yesterday churches should not be exempt from the policy, despite claims of static or declining congregations.

Mr McLeod said he had joined large crowds at Knox Church more than once, and claims of small congregations were "not a good argument".

"What you are essentially saying is it's not acceptable to kill 1000 people, but it is acceptable to kill 100."

Cr Wilson also told the hearing many churches would already meet the 34% requirement, while council staff said those requiring work might not face large bills.

The debate came after six submitters presented their views yesterday, with several calling for greater flexibility in the council's approach.

Feldspar founding director Joff Riley, a civil engineer, construction manager and heritage building owner, said as many of Dunedin's valuable heritage buildings as possible needed to be retained.

However, parapets and facades should be the focus, ensuring they - and the public below - were safe "sooner rather than later".

That sort of work could be completed with relative ease and at low cost, he said.

Owners should be allowed to carry out smaller, staged upgrades, moving gradually towards 34%, or the council risked owners opting to leave their buildings to deteriorate, he said.

Building investor Greg Paterson, of Flat Iron Investments Ltd, warned the policy could have "a huge economic impact" on Dunedin, which had a low socio-economic base, a rising rates burden and a low earthquake risk.

Many older buildings with only limited strengthening work - below the 34% level - performed "quite well" during the Christchurch earthquakes, even if they now needed demolition.

Encouraging work on parapets, facades and verandas first would provide "the best bang for your buck" and avoid delays.

Structural engineer Lou Robinson, of Hadley and Robinson Ltd, also wanted incremental improvements, but did not believe different buildings should be treated differently.

Securing church gables could be enough to ensure churches met the 34% requirement, and the work could be "easy" and relatively inexpensive, he believed.

Elsewhere, assessments were needed to identify which buildings needed work, rather than just focusing on securing all of George or Princes Sts, he believed. 

New Zealand Historic Places Trust representatives also addressed yesterday's hearing, which came after written submissions received earlier by the council had been divided, a staff report said.

Some believed the policy was too permissive, and wanted more strengthening in a shorter time frame, while others wanted less strengthening for older buildings.

Yesterday's deliberations - by panel members Cr Wilson, Cr Lee Vandervis and Dr Tom Moore - saw parts of the policy tweaked before the hearing was adjourned.

Deliberations would resume next week, at a date to be confirmed, before an amended policy was presented to councillors for approval.

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