As the North Island reels from last month’s floods, a South Island council and hotel owner are at loggerheads over a deluge seven years ago
Scenic Circle Hotel Group has hit back at allegations by the West Coast Regional Council that’s it’s jeopardising the town of Franz Josef by holding up consents for new floodwalls.
Part of Scenic Circle’s Franz Josef hotel was ruined in the 2016 Waiho (Waiau) River floods and the company has been consulted as an affected party in the council’s plan to improve the stopbanks.
Westland Mayor Helen Lash last month accused the hotel group of holding Franz Josef to ransom by refusing to sign off on resource consents, thereby requiring a hearing to evaluate the $12 million government-funded project.
But Scenic Circle chair Lani Hagaman says calm heads rather than wild accusations are needed for the scheme to proceed and any delays are down to the council, not her company.
“We believe work done to the existing stopbank and the riverbed before the  flood may have worsened the impact on our hotel – we also believe the work may have been done without the necessary resource consents or any affected-party notification to us.”
The company’s efforts to find out what happened before the flood have been ignored, Hagaman says.
“It’s not just about accountability, it’s about understanding what happened so we can ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
The Scenic Circle group owner says the company is committed to rebuilding a $50 million hotel in Franz Josef with a conference centre that could be used as a community hall.
“But we need to know that we can get insurance and that our staff and guests will be safe there in future extreme-weather events.”
The company’s refusal to green-light the stopbanks has nothing to do with a pending court case over the 2016 flood, Hagaman says.
“We were paid out for the hotel by our insurer and it is now trying to recover some of that money from the West Coast Regional Council and the Westland District Council.
“This is standard practice for insurers … and quite separate to the process for the new stopbank.”
The company was first made aware of the stopbank plan last September and the work was officially notified by the regional council just before Christmas, Hagaman says.
It had worked “constructively” with the council since September on the resource consent process.
A national focus on floods at present shouldn’t be allowed to “let proper process be swept away” in the haste for solutions.
She says questions raised by the company led to improvements in the stopbank plans and to the discovery that the council had not applied for all the necessary consents for the river works.
“The stopbank work is important and urgently needed. We welcome it.
“But the council must share information … and provide the community with reassurance that it’s appropriately managing all risks.”
Claims that the hotel company is holding up the Franz Josef project and possibly jeopardising the funding are unfair and incorrect, she says.
“If the council wanted us to respond earlier it should have engaged with us sooner rather than trying to pressure us into forgoing proper process.”
West Coast Regional Council chief executive Heather Mabin dismisses Hagaman’s criticisms saying the stopbank plans have been public for about two years.
She says Scenic Circle was the only one of 11 affected parties to refuse to sign off on the consents.
“If it has the community interest at heart, why would its lawyer leave it till the very last day of the 20-day statutory period to object and force us to a hearing?”
As for the assertion that Scenic Circle’s questioning revealed all relevant consents hadn’t been applied for, she says “that was something our planners alerted us to during the process”.
Mabin says the company’s claim that work on the stopbanks before the 2016 floods had made matters worse is part of the insurance case before the high court and the parties involved are not supposed to comment on them.
Seven years after the Waiho flood the ruined Scenic Circle hotel building is still awaiting demolition.
The council is concurrently dealing with the company over that issue, Mabin says.
“But all the funding we get for the stopbank project has to be spent on the project itself – we have to go strictly by the book and we are asking it to apply for the appropriate [demolition] consents.”
The company’s stated proposal for a new $50 million hotel and conference centre is astonishing, Mabin says, given the site’s multiple hazards with or without new stopbanks.
“The whole point of this $12 million scheme is to buy time for Franz Josef to relocate away from the Alpine Fault and a riverbed that’s now higher than the town and rising by the year.
“Higher stopbanks will give the town 20 years – and that’s it,” Mabin says.
Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund