Historic Feilding buildings locked into quake strengthening regime

The Feilding Hotel faces an uncertain future. - Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

A move to buy time for historic buildings in Feilding facing expensive earthquake-strengthening upgrades has been defeated.

A Manawatū District Council committee has narrowly backed designating about 10 of the town's busiest streets as places where quake-prone buildings would face a tighter upgrade deadline.

"Safety comes first as far as our ratepayers are concerned," councillor Phil Marsh said.

Some geotechnical reports suggested Manawatū, a high-risk quake area, faced a 30 percent chance of experiencing a magnitude-seven quake on the Richter scale, or stronger, in the next decade, he said.

If the full council backs that vote later this month, scores of buildings would have to be assessed by engineers within a year; those found quake-prone (under 34 percent of New Building Standards) would need upgrading within seven-and-a-half years, or face demolition.

A dozen of the 21 submissions to the council backed making some of Feilding's busiest streets part of a priority area where the tightest strengthening deadlines apply - even though Rangitikei district next door rejected having any such zones for fear owners would abandon en masse risky buildings where low rents could not cover upgrades.

Critics of the 2017 changes to earthquake laws crafted in response to the Christchurch and Kaikōura quakes, have accused lawmakers of foisting "demolition by legislation" on small towns.

Mr Marsh said proactive business owners in Feilding were already taking action.

"They've made a conscious decision to leave an earthquake-prone building and shift into a new, fully-qualified building."

Landlords who held out against strengthening were doing a disservice to tenants, he said.

The priority zones, if introduced, would be centred on the town's main square, where there are particular fears the historic Feilding Hotel will fall victim.

Its owner, Dave Wiseman, has previously told RNZ that if the tightest upgrade deadlines were imposed the hotel might end up boarded up.

The council committee rejected a proposal to give the Feilding Hotel and two other particularly prized buildings on corner sites - the Terry Urquhart Law building and the Carthew's building - longer to do full earthquake strengthening.

The proposal would allow the buildings' owners to strengthen one side at a time instead of the whole building at once.

Deputy mayor Michael Ford presented the idea, saying for fairness it could also be extended to all owners of corner-site unreinforced masonry buildings on corner sites.

"They would not be let off the hook. They could either strengthen one wall, or half strengthen two walls, depending upon the engineer's advice," Mr Ford said.

This proposal only came in at the 11th hour, councillor Shane Casey said.

The priority zones were the safest way to go, he said, but added that building owners would need more central government help with strengthening work.

The government has moved to offer bigger grants for owners of heritage listed quake-prone buildings. It is leading trials in Feilding to find cheaper ways of strengthening old buildings.

Mr Ford is now resigned to the town having to strengthen or demolish about 90 earthquake buildings in seven-and-a-half years.

"We need help. How do we achieve that, without destroying the town?" he said.

"The community want at least some authentic heritage buildings retained and have prioritised the top few."

Manawatū is in a high-risk quake zone. But central North Island mayors have argued it is nonsense to lump small towns and rural areas in with high-risk Wellington under the same quake rules.

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