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Heritage buildings in Dunedin and across Otago may have been handed a 20-year death sentence by the Government, it has been claimed.
The warning of dire consequences came from councils, heritage building owners and the Otago Chamber of Commerce yesterday, as Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson unveiled the Government's earthquake-prone building policy.
The policy gave councils across New Zealand five years to assess nearly 200,000 buildings - including all non-residential and high-rise, multi-unit apartment buildings - for earthquake risks.
The owners of those found to be earthquake-prone would then be given another 15 years to upgrade to at least 34% of building code requirements, at an expected cost of about $1.7 billion.
Those spoken to yesterday warned Dunedin and other Southern centres would have to meet the same requirements, in the same time frame, as Auckland or Wellington, without the same economic incentives to reinvest in buildings.
As a result, some building owners in the South were likely to wait, ignoring the new requirements until their buildings needed to be demolished.
Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull said the Government had ignored calls for a regional approach, and the policy effectively handed down a death sentence for some heritage buildings.
''In 20 years' time, older buildings that it wasn't economic to upgrade will have to be demolished. That will include a lot of heritage buildings.
''It could be a death sentence for some buildings and even some businesses,'' he said.
Otago Chamber of Commerce chief executive John Christie criticised the policy's ''one-size-fits-all'' approach, lumping Dunedin with Wellington, saying it would come at considerable cost to the community.
Some owners would be forced to invest ''significant money'' bringing their buildings up to minimum standards in Dunedin, despite the city being in one of the lowest-risk earthquake zones in the country, he said.
At the same time, less responsible building owners - as well as churches and others in the non-profit sector - would be unwilling or unable to meet the costs, leading to more ''demolition by neglect'', he believed.
''There's a significant cost to the community on this one ... I do have some real concerns for what we would deem real historic buildings in Dunedin,'' he said.
Heritage building owner Stephen Macknight agreed, saying a regional approach would have reflected Dunedin's ''real risk'' compared with other centres like Wellington.
Instead, the policy would put more financial and deadline pressure on Dunedin owners to walk away from their buildings.
''It's going to put a lot of pressure on people with buildings that may not be at the moment very productive, but could be in the future.
''People are going to be pulling buildings down or [be] financially crippled,'' he said.
The concerns were echoed by Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust chairman Marcus Brown, whose organisation owned 16 heritage buildings in the town.
He warned owners of some heritage buildings might not be able to afford to upgrade them, raising the prospect of demolition, which could leave gaps in heritage streetscapes like Oamaru's historic precinct.
''It would be like removing some teeth and replacing them with dentures,'' he said.
Mr Williamson said the policy had been revised since public consultation began last year, and ''strikes a balance'' between protecting people and managing the cost or strengthening or removing buildings.
The deadline to complete strengthening work had been extended by five years, to 20 years, and owners of category 1-listed heritage buildings could apply for a further 10-year extension to the limit.
There would also be exemptions for low-risk structures, including farm outbuildings. Council heritage planner Dr Glen Hazelton said passing responsibility for initial assessments to councils meant the policy would come at a cost to ratepayers.
In Dunedin, at least 4500 buildings were expected to require assessments, and up to 1500 could be earthquake-prone, but details of the assessment process and its cost were not known, he said.
Mr Williamson's spokesman said yesterday assessments would be a low-cost ''largely desktop exercise'' - not an engineering assessment - but that concerned Dr Hazelton as well.
''A desktop exercise wouldn't have picked up CTV or Pyne Gould Guinness [in Christchurch] ... so what are you actually gaining?
''We're uncomfortable about that element of risk.''
The council was also likely to pick up the cost of demolition if a building owner decided to abandon their building, rather than comply with the new policy, Dr Hazelton predicted.
Legislation to amend the Building Act was expected to be introduced later this year, Mr Williamson said.