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Thousands of eastern Sydney home owners fear higher insurance premiums and lower property values after they were blindsided by a formal notification that their properties are at increased risk of flooding.
The backlash to a flood study conducted chiefly by Waverley Council will have implications for councils throughout NSW, who have primary responsibility for managing floodplain development under the state’s flood-prone land policy.
A flood study conducted chiefly by Waverley Council will have implications for councils throughout NSW.Credit:Sydney Images / Mark Merton
Six affected residents who spoke to the Herald all said they were not even aware a flood study had occurred when they received a letter from the council telling them their property had been rated a “medium” risk.
Nearly 3000 properties were given a “low” risk rating, about 1400 “medium” and 146 “high”, with the rest unrated or “no risk”. But many residents were confused about why their home was considered at risk, why neighbouring properties had different ratings and why the study was necessary at all as they were far away from flood zones near the Hawkesbury.
Queens Park resident Sam Espie, who bought his Denison Street semi for $1.5 million in 2010, said the property had never flooded, and the ratings seemed to be based on “arbitrary lines on a map which don’t reflect the lived experience of the house”.
“It’s a medium risk of something that has never happened,” he said. “If the ramifications are significant they’re going to cause a lot of people a lot of pain.”
Sam Espie, pictured with his daughters Jessica and Violet, bought his Queens Park property in 2010 and says it has never flooded.Credit:Rhett Wyman
Waverley Council said it was following a state government program that began with studying the area’s vulnerability to flood and extended to including flood maps in development control plans (DCPs), which dictate how people can build and renovate.
But a NSW Planning Department spokesperson said this was not a requirement, and the 2021 flood-prone land package did not compel councils to update their DCPs or apply stronger controls above the 1-in-100 chance per year flood level.
Waverley began its flood study in 2018 and sought public input, but all the home owners who spoke to the Herald said they had no idea it happened. “Everyone was shocked to receive this letter out of the blue,” said David Lesmond, whose Bronte home was also slapped with a “medium” flood risk.
The council’s own report notes that of 35,169 letters delivered in Waverley during the consultation, only 144 questionnaires were returned – a response rate of just 0.4 per cent.
Home owners received their flood risk notifications in June and July, and were explicitly told their rating would not change as “the adopted flood study has already been endorsed by council”. However, the DCP is still being finalised and will be reviewed by an independent flood consultant.
Waverley Mayor Paula Masselos acknowledged home owners’ concerns and said she was taking the feedback seriously: “That is one of the reasons we said to the officers, ‘Go back, it needs more work’.”
A council spokesperson told the Herald they were not aware of any consultation with insurance companies before the study, but the council was now looking into what the consequences could be for home owners’ premiums and property values.
Insurance Council chief executive Andrew Hall said insurers already had extensive data on flood risk that was by and large already priced into people’s premiums. “We welcome councils being more transparent with land owners around their flood risk,” he said. “That ultimately should be happening more broadly across the country.”
Home owners received their flood risk notifications in June and July.Credit:Sydney Images / Mark Merton
The Waverley flood study involved co-operation with Randwick Council because they share the Clovelly catchment, but Randwick intends to re-run the consultation due to concerns about the process.
Lesmond, who is leading the residents’ backlash to the flood rating, had a degree of sympathy for the council’s predicament.
“They want to look at flood planning, it’s a serious issue,” he said. “They’ve done this very comprehensive technical assessment, and they’ve made this leap of logic that it’s residents who are going to pay for this.”
Henry Brown has lived in Chaleyer Street in Rose Bay for nearly 40 years and says he has never had an issue with flooding. He believes his property’s medium-risk rating came about because “somebody went down the road for a smoko, looked behind a tree and wrote a report”.
Waverley’s flood maps show clusters of “high risk” properties around certain valleys, including a large one to the east of the Royal Sydney Golf Club. There are also isolated high-risk properties, which the council said could be due to anomalies such as “a localised depression in the road”.
By contrast, Bayside Council – which last year completed a floodplain risk management plan for Botany Bay and foreshore – said its flood studies did not categorise individual properties as low, medium or high risk. Rather, they identified flood hazards and rated them from one to six.
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