It’s a perfectly warm and pleasant summer’s afternoon in the little village by the lake, but uncertainty has darkened the mood.
The settlement has been there for more than a century, and has always looked much the same.
Some of the homes are former army huts, others old tram carriages, and some are modern but modest houses, tightly tucked together down path-like streets curving gently like the river that runs parallel to the main road, which goes from tarseal to dusty metal before it ends where the land does, at Lake Ellesmere.
A future king once sailed that river, hunting for trout; boats piled along the riverbank for regattas, featuring the region’s wealthiest and most prominent families; the annual New Year’s gala in the quiet reserve would sometimes last for days.
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If the Selwyn Huts was once the domain of dukes and the upper-class, it is fundamentally different today. Among its 100 permanent residents are families and pensioners and single people who relish the solitude. The average house is worth around $100,000.
It’s the sort of place where you can walk barefoot down the centre of the road, where kids swing from a rope into the river, like a shot of Kiwiana into your veins.
“You know everyone here,” said Graeme Young, a long-time resident.
“When you go down to the shop you say, ‘do you want anything’? It’s like that. There’s no dramas here. We take pride in our community.”
If the Upper Selwyn Huts is the way New Zealand used to be, it’s a way of life that is vanishing. It is one of a handful of New Zealand’s surviving hut communities, which were once spread widely, from the Far North to the Deep South.
They have slowly disappeared, by a combination of natural attrition and concerted government policy. From the early 2000s, it was seen as inconsistent to allow private property on publicly-owned land, and the Department of Conservation pledged to wind the hut communities down.
As other hut communities became smaller or disappeared, the Selwyn Huts bucked the trend, becoming stronger and more permanent as though it had defiantly put down roots.
It is now home, at least some of the time, to about 100 people, many of whom live there permanently.
While it has become a permanent settlement in its own right, it still occupies the strange legal space of its past, which locals now fear will lead to its end.
“It’s such an impossible situation,” said Jane Ayres, who moved there from Lyttelton almost a decade ago.
“No-one can make a decision about selling their house … We are totally powerless, as far as providing for our future. It’s so unusual.”
Since it was set aside as a reserve for anglers in 1895, the land beneath the Selwyn Huts has been owned by the Crown.
From 1987, the land has been administered by the Selwyn District Council, responsible for the community’s upkeep.
The hut owners have been granted licences continually for a century, usually renewed on a five-yearly basis with a provision for renewal. The licences provide only for occupation, but have always been renewed without indication it would stop.
Until now. With a year left on their current licences, there are rumblings they may not be renewed for the first time in a century, leaving residents unsure of how many summers they have left at the huts.
The council has confirmed that if the hut owners’ licences are not renewed, there would be no compensation: It would be up to the residents to navigate life after the Selwyn Huts.
Among the worried hut owners is Pam Tyler, or ‘Possum Pam’ as she’s better known, a recent transplant to the community. Sunlight streams through a large window onto her table, where she makes her possum fur products while looking over her wild and elaborate garden.
Tyler had lived in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch during the earthquakes, and needed to escape the stress. She didn’t want to worry about money, so she returned to her country roots, buying one of the larger houses at the Selwyn Huts.
“You’re safe here,” she said.
“You can leave your doors open. Everyone looks out for everybody.”
Recently, that sense of security had been replaced with something else, she said – anxiety.
If the licences are not renewed, it is unclear whether hut owners would be compensated. If they were, the value of the houses is low: If they were paid out to the rateable value, it wouldn’t be enough to afford a house elsewhere.
One of Tyler’s neighbours, who has a young family, told her she was unable to sleep due to the worry. Others had needed to move for family reasons, but could not sell their huts.
Whatever decision the council made, the uncertainty had already done damage.
“This is my home, and I wouldn’t be able to afford anything else again,” Tyler said.
“A lot of people are stressed about it. It’s the uncertainty. It feels like you’re living in limbo.”
Two issues in particular threaten the end of the Selwyn Huts: sewage and climate change.
Start with sewage. The community’s waste is collected in ponds, treated, then spread on land near the lake. The resource consent was given in 2000, and expires in June 2020.
A lot has changed in 20 years. The expansion of dairy farming, as well as a population boom after the earthquakes, has put strain on the district’s environment. The lake is among the most polluted in New Zealand, and will likely remain so, as many tonnes of nitrogen winds its way towards the water from recent land use changes.
It’ll take generations to fix the lake, and require significant changes to how the surrounding land is used. The new environmental limits mean the community’s wastewater system wouldn’t get a new consent, so the community needs another way to dispose of waste.
There are a few options, all of which would require all of the sewerage pipes to be replaced. The estimated costs range between $2.8 million and $6.2m.
It sounds easy enough, but it’s at this point that climate change comes in.
Lake Ellesmere is a brackish lake; wide, shallow and marsh-like. European settlers drained much of the land on its fringes to farm animals and build houses. To prevent flooding, the lake’s water levels were artificially managed by periodically carving an opening to the sea, letting the rising water drain out. The practice continues today.
It means the land around the lake is low-lying and floods easily, particularly if the lake can’t be drained to the sea in time. Dozens of farms in the area face regular inundation from flooding.
Research has considered the impact of sea-level rise on the lake, and found its water levels would rise alongside the sea, increasing an already high flooding risk. While the Upper Selwyn Huts may not become regularly inundated, much of the land around it will, including any land it would need for wastewater disposal.
That’s the essence of any decision the council makes. Can it justify building new infrastructure, likely to be affected by climate change, for a small community with a doubtful long-term future.
It’s an issue that authorities have been expecting to confront as a consequence of climate change, but there is little precedent for moving an entire community.
For the Selwyn Huts, the thorny moral issues posed by this process are complicated by the fact the land is a public reserve.
The council’s property manager, Douglas Marshall, said it meant the council had no obligation to compensate hut owners should the licences not be renewed.
“A licence… gives an individual a right to place a building on land they do not own for a period of time based on certain conditions,” he said.
“Because licences are generally renewed, there can be a false expectation that an individual will be able to occupy the land in perpetuity.”
For that reason, the hut-owners would not be paid anything for their buildings, which, on-average, are worth $100,000 each. Without licences, the residents would be required to remove their own homes.
The Selwyn District Council has signed the local government leaders’ climate change declaration, pledging to make plans for reducing its own emissions and supporting communities affected by climate change (the declaration is aspirational and does not bind councils to any specific action, Local Government New Zealand has said.)
To deal with the Selwyn Huts issue, the council appointed a working party comprising the mayor, the chief executive and the three councillors representing the Springs ward (which contains the Selwyn Huts).
The group recommended the licences be renewed and the sewerage system be upgraded, allowing for the development of a long-term transition plan to move the community.
When that plan was presented to all councillors at a workshop, there was a debate, resulting in a request for another report with more options. That report will be put before councillors in the coming months.
For Debra Hasson, one of the councillors on the working party, it was a tough situation.
The threat of climate change must be taken seriously, she said, but it had to be balanced with a need to fairly treat the affected communities, while responsibly handling ratepayer funds.
“We have a responsibility in local government to take [climate change] seriously,” she said.
“It would be unreasonable to tell the hut owners to leave in five years’ time. You have to know all of the options and give time to develop a transitional plan.”
Her personal view aligned with the working party’s recommendation, she said, but it was unclear what options councillors would be presented with. The full council could decide not to renew the licences, saving itself a significant expenditure.
“I would be disappointed if the council made that decision,” Hasson said.
“You’re voted in to represent your ratepayers. To turn around and say, you’re out, is not a fair process, and the best way to deal with this is to take the community with you.”
Graeme Young lives in a rustic hut where the walls are painted a hearty red and crammed with framed family photos. The cricket blares from a television and a warm breeze gusts through a window.
Like many in the community, Young had expected to live out his days in the huts. He has no mortgage, and has become close friends with many in the close-knit community.
“I’m on a pension, I couldn’t afford to even rent anywhere,” he said.
“If [the huts] didn’t exist anymore I can’t even go somewhere and pay $300 or $400 a week somewhere. People are feeling really uncertain about it.”
While high level concerns about climate change and infrastructure have percolated within the council, there has been little sign of progress to the community itself.
When the wastewater issue was first raised, back in 2015, it looked like there would be a happy resolution: Staff had come up with several viable options, and the hut owners believed there would be a mutually agreeable solution.
Nothing happened. The hut owners waited.
Then, in early 2018, the residents received a copy of a legal opinion which had been sought by the council. The document included a series of questions asked by councillors.
First on the list: “The feasibility of refusing to renew the licences.”
It was the first time the hut owners had been made aware that their continued occupation was under question.
Young, among others, was furious. For years, there had been an implicit understanding that something would happen with the wastewater issue, but now it had been left to the last minute.
While council staff had been supportive of finding a solution, the councillors themselves seemed uninterested, Young said. The community had invited councillors to meet with hut residents, as well as attend public meetings, but had been rebuffed.
When the working party recommended a long-term solution – outside of an official council meeting, so there is no official record of what was said – some councillors had showed support for not renewing the licences, hence the request for a different report, Young said.
“I think they [the council] don’t like us,” he said.
“I know it sounds bizarre, but I just think they have a dislike for us.”
It now looks like the hut owners have even less time than expected. A wastewater consent application needs to be filed with Environment Canterbury in December of this year to meet the June 2020 deadline, roughly the time their licences expire.
The clock is ticking.
In the history of the Selwyn Huts, there have been two defining moments that have changed its character.
The first is the gradual pollution of the Selwyn River, which had been a major drawcard for the huts.
The river was once considered among the world’s best brown trout fisheries – in the 1940s, an estimated 65,000 trout spawned in the river (By 2007, this number had reduced to 250, and is now reportedly in the tens). The river’s water was deep and clear, which made it popular for both swimming and boating.
A few decades ago, the river started deteriorating, residents say. The water is unsafe to swim in most summers, and often covered in thick mats of green algae. The eels, along with the trout, have all but disappeared, too.
“I went walking up the river earlier and saw one eel and one trout, so I don’t believe the fish are there at the moment,” said Graham Evans, whose family has owned a hut since 1923.
When the fish disappeared, so too did the need for fishing huts. Until the early 1990s, you needed a fishing permit to even get a hut licence, but now the appeal of the huts had become the rural solitude, a quiet life by the river.
The second major change was more recent. For most of the community’s history, hut owners weren’t allowed to live in their huts permanently. Only 12 people were given the right to live in them fulltime, and the rest could only live there for nine months each year.
It was an odd rule that was impossible to enforce. Some just ignored it completely, while others skirted the line (they were technically following the rules if, several times a year, they left their hut on a Friday morning and returned the following Monday.)
The rule was dropped during the last licence renewal, allowing all owners to live there permanently. It opened the floodgates; Not only did existing hut owners move there permanently, but new people moved to the community, too. A few even built new houses, which they intended to become their new homes.
It’s this potential bait and switch that frustrates Steve Curtis, who bought a hut a few years ago, shortly after the decision was made to allow permanent residence.
His hut used to belong to the Armstrongs, a well-known Christchurch family, and is large, modern and comfortable. He moved from Temuka to the Selwyn Huts, with the understanding it would become his permanent home.
Just a few years later, he’s now unsure if his $150,000 house will need to be demolished, leaving him nowhere to go.
“It’s very stressful for lots of people here,” he said.
“There’s no certainty of having a house, and they have no other options.”
It has a personal element for Evans, one of around six hut owners with a connection to the community’s beginnings.
He spent his childhood at the huts, combing the river for eels, which he would sell nearby. There used to be a small shop, from which you could buy ice creams; there remains a playground and a tennis court. There had been a boat in Evans’ shed uninterrupted since 1923.
He inherited his hut from his parents, who inherited it from their parents. He had intended to leave it for his children, and their children.
“These are not fishing baches here anymore, they’re homes,” Evans said.
“I don’t think they realise we’ve got a little settlement that’s working well together. It’s self-destructive for the council to reject the fact we could continue to live here.”
It’s the same for Susan Rogers, another hut owner whose family had been there since the beginning.
She had lived at the huts virtually her entire life, she said, even when they were just rickety fishing baches. At a meeting of some Selwyn Huts residents a week earlier, she had described it as “the way New Zealand used to be”.
“I like the sense of community, the quiet,” she said.
“If you do want company you can walk down the street and someone will invite you in for a cup of tea.”
Two families have had to move recently, Rogers said, and due to the lack of clarity about its future, had to settle for next to nothing when selling their huts. One had sold for less than $40,000, she said, and several have had for sale signs up for a long time.
The uncertainty meant lives were being interrupted, and people were fretting about what could be lost.
“I think it’s shocking,” she said.
“The fact I could be homeless… my expectation was that my daughter would have this place, that I’d live the rest of my life out here.”
If the worst does happen, and the licences are not renewed, it’s unclear what would happen next.
There have been few, if any, examples of community-wide managed retreat in New Zealand, although it is expected to become an issue for some coastal communities in the future. Councils around the country are coming up with adaptive planning frameworks to manage communities exposed to climate change risks in the long-term.
The Selwyn Huts will be among the first communities to undergo this process, regardless of what decision councillors make.
From the council’s perspective, the Selwyn hut-owners always faced a risk they may need to move their properties.
“The challenge for licence holders is that because they do not own the land, a risk that they might have to remove their hut in the future is likely,” Douglas Marshall said.
“The council appreciates that the decision is significant for licence holders, but it must also make sure that the council does not incur unreasonable costs for licence holders and Selwyn ratepayers.”
If the licences were not renewed, it could prompt legal challenges. The legal opinion sought by the council raised several potential legal issues; It said because the licences had been renewed continuously for nearly a century, the residents could argue there was an expectation that would continue, even if it was not expressly stated.
Any council decision could also become subject to a judicial review, it said, and noted that “similar circumstances have plagued other public bodies, often resulting in impasse.”
The opinion concluded by recommending the council “proceed with extreme caution”.
“The renewal or non-renewal of licences is likely to be an emotive issue for the residents and hut owners concerned,” it said. “As discussed, abrupt or unforeshadowed changes in direction are potentially risky and vulnerable to challenge.”
According to Dr Kenneth Palmer, an expert in local government planning law, there are a few other issues the council would need to consider, too.
Given the council had likely given building permits for expanding the huts in the past, it could give rise to a “legitimate expectation that the council would not decline to renew leases,” he said.
The council may also be obliged to continue providing wastewater services to the community under the “prime necessity principle,” in which councils can only cut off services in exceptional circumstances.
Finally, there may be a heritage argument for keeping the huts, Palmer said.
When DOC tried to remove privately-owned huts on Rangitoto Island, a judicial review directed the Minister to consider their heritage value, resulting in some hut-owners having their licences renewed.
If the Selwyn Huts residents don’t have their licences renewed, some have said they won’t move. They would be obligated to destroy their own homes.
Until then, they plan to fight; There is talk of one resident running a single-issue campaign in this year’s council election, and if it comes to it, they may pursue legal action.
“Lots of us have put all of our money into this,” Susan Rogers said.
“We’ve got nowhere else to go.”
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