A two-week hearing at the Environment Court starts today that pits one of the country’s biggest property developers against Auckland Council, environmentalists, and a tight-knit community on the city’s northern rural-urban boundary.
Todd Property wants to put 1000 new homes on 130 hectares on an Okura headland, softening the blow to locals by promising to give more than 40 percent of the land back to the public. It’s trying to do what the Auckland Council is crying out for – house more people. It can’t do it with such intensification, however, without getting the city limit boundary line moved north under the council’s unitary plan, and councillors have already refused to move that line. That decision was made against the recommendation of council officials – politicians were swayed by the powerful arguments of residents and environmental groups.
Those same groups will now re-run their arguments in court. For the Long Bay – Okura Great Park Society it will be the third time in 20 years they have faced costly legal battles. If they lose, they don’t have enough money to pay their legal bills. The group’s deputy convenor, Pete Townend, says they are about $75,000 shy, in spite of having raised about the same amount in the last few months.
This money doesn’t just come from a well heeled ‘nimby’ community wanting to stave off thousands of new neighbours.
Townend says the money is coming from concerned Aucklanders, and supporters as far away as Australia and Japan. “In the last decade we have raised just under $1 million fighting to protect the Long Bay area, Okura and Weiti from inappropriate urbanisation and to protect the marine reserve from sedimentation,” he says. Admitting it’s challenging “on a daily basis,”
Townend says “win or lose, it’s not the end of the story”.
Todd Property would not comment to Newsroom ahead of the court case, but last week updated its website which promotes the development, emphasising the green aspects of it.
“This new coastal reserve will be significant, unlocking public access to land that’s been farmed and in various private ownership for decades,” said Todd Property Managing Director Evan Davies. “There is a real opportunity before us to create something quite special and different – a new and sustainable eco community that will ensure the future protection of the Long Bay-Okura Marine Reserve.” The website also says the new reserve land would extend the Te Araroa national walkway in an area that is currently being farmed, with little in the way of vegetation around its streams or along the coastal edge. It would plant about eight hectares of new trees and shrubs, and says new wetland areas would significantly improve the quality of water run-off into the sea. There would be cycle ways, walking tracks, nature trails and parks for residents and the public.
In its Environment Court filing it says: “Any adverse effects on the environment or amenity values arising from OHL’s (Okura Holdings Ltd) proposed development can be appropriately avoided, remedied or mitigated. This was accepted by Council officers in their recommendation to the Council’s Governing Body.” It goes on to say OHL’s proposed development “will have significant positive environmental effects.”
If Todd’s plans fail, it will fall back on what it already has permission for – a gated subdivision of 30 lifestyle blocks with a private road running through the middle. The 12 waterfront sections have riparian rights, which would lock out the public completely.
Townend is not swallowing that threat, saying there are plenty of coastal walkways in Auckland with urban views – “they are well loved, but common”.
“If you want the Gold Coast for Auckland and New Zealand then carry on developing all our coastal land for urban housing. Let’s do it to all of New Zealand. Don’t be so silly, that’s not what we want. What we want as New Zealanders is a future for our kids. If you talk to people who come here to visit, they want to see nature and the wilderness, they’re not coming because of the architecturally built houses.”
The Society is convinced that other developments in the area have polluted the marine reserve, increasing the amount of silt flowing into rivers which flow into the sea. They have done aquatic testing for 11 months for one site (at Weiti), saying all the numbers produced show pollution above the guidelines where species thrive.
Once they put the houses on there, the houses are there forever.
Forest and Bird is also in this fight, saying in court documents the development would “adversely affect the Long Bay – Okura Marine Reserve which provides habitat for a number of threatened and sensitive marine species and is rated as an outstanding natural landscape.” It also says the bid to move the city boundary is contrary to the purpose of the Reserve Management Act.
Another group, Friends of Okura Bush, is passionate in its opposition to the plans. Chair Lezette Reid says the area is home to many rare birds and a critical breeding habitat for much of our marine chain. “Protecting such areas also helps to sustain populations of fish species, like snapper, the most popular recreational species in the Hauraki Gulf. It inherently also means that water quality is protected.” The group laments the recent loss of green backdrop to the area as developments take hold, and accuses the Auckland Council of underplaying levels of pollution. It says one of Auckland’s “coastal jewels” is at risk of permanent destruction through “inappropriate consents and incompetently managed development”.
On the north side of the Okura estuary, bulldozers are hard at work. The Weiti Bay development has scared the hillside above the picturesque Karipiro Bay, where the historic Dacre Cottage is a drawcard for walkers and boaties. Rare dotterels have made their homes in the sand and their nests have been carefully roped off. “When you come out of that beautiful bush (from the Okura walkway) you are accosted with what looks like a World War I battle scene,” says Townend. “It will eventually be improved and trees planted and it will look pretty in the way of a retirement home or manicured garden or golf course. But somewhere along the line the government and council needs to look around and say ‘is this really what we want, forever?’ Because once they put houses on there, the houses are there forever. In 10 years time when Auckland has five or six million people in it we will really need this; why urbanise the whole coast?
“Some things are going to change, but we will continue to fight for this as long as we have to. But there’s a sense we are coming to a cross-roads.” Townend believes New Zealanders are waking up to water issues and to what they are going to leave for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He says while support is growing for the need for appropriate housing developments, New Zealanders also want to leaving something of the country for the enjoyment of future generations.