Rich lister Anna Mowbray and ex-All Black Ali Williams’ application to fly a chopper from their suburban Auckland garden sparks calls for restrictions on helipads

Auckland Council doesn’t actually have any rules about people in the city putting helipads in their back gardens. There are rules about keeping chickens, and playing music, and how high off the ground you can put a water tank.

But there’s nothing specifically related to helipads. Which seems odd, until you think that the council probably doesn’t have rules about people building a private nuclear power plant or digging a coal mine in the garden. Presumably back in the day when the unitary plan was put together, helicopters were something that landed at airports; the council probably reckoned they didn’t need to have specific guidelines about helicopters and urban gardens.

How things have changed.

Over the last 10 years three wealthy individuals in the exclusive suburb of Herne Bay have put helipads in their seafront properties, with two more thought to be under consideration. There’s at least one homeowner talking about a private helipad in Orakei.

Waiheke has almost 50 private helipads, according to some estimates, ferrying locals and visitors to and from homes and vineyards. 

And now locals are up in arms about a helipad Ali Williams and Anna Mowbray want to build on their $24 million peninsular home in the increasingly up-and-coming inner city suburb of Westmere.

The helipad will sit on a headland jutting into a coastal marine area. Photo: Google Earth

Ali Williams is best known for his prowess in the second row on the rugby field, but he has also owned a bottled water company, with fellow All Blacks Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, and is now involved in property investment with the Ardmore Group. 

Anna Mowbray is one of three Mowbray siblings behind the hugely successful Zuru toy company, which has more recently expanded into other products, from pet food to shampoo to nappies.

NBR’s 2021 Rich List had the Mowbrays at number four, with an estimated worth of $2.5 billion. Williams and Mowbray got together in 2019 and last year bought the 4500 square metre property on a small headland in Westmere.

How to consent a helipad

Of course, just because there are no specific rules about helipads at the bottom of the garden doesn’t mean it’s open slather. People have to ask for permission under the Resource Management Act and the Auckland Unitary Plan, which “guides the use of Auckland’s natural and physical resources, including land development”. 

For example, there are rules around flying helicopters over people’s homes, so if you want a helipad in your Auckland suburban garden, you probably have to live on the coast. And there are noise restrictions you have to meet, though for some odd reason when judging the nuisance of helicopter noise, council apparently averages the sound over a 24 hour period.

You also have to consider the impact on your immediate neighbours, and get their permission.

But that’s about all.

The first step when council receives a new helipad application is for a planner to decide whether to “notify” the project. That is, whether to allow the general public a say, or just approve it on the information in the application. 

To date, the vast majority of helipad applications have been approved, and without any notification. Mostly the first thing the neighbourhood knows about a proposed helipad is when it’s a done deal. 

Not flying over houses – tick.

Noise levels not excessive – tick.

Approval from immediate neighbours – tick. 

Consent granted. Uncork the bubbly.

Briscoe boss Rod Duke got permission for a helipad on an inner city beach. Photo: Nikki Mandow

For example, when Briscoes founder Rod Duke wanted to convert his boat shed on Auckland’s Sentinel Beach to a helipad, the council said ‘sure’, without any notification. 

Somewhat astonishingly, that was an application to have helicopters coming onto the roof of a boat shed on a public beach and landing directly above people who might be sunbathing and swimming below.

It was only when Duke appealed the consent he’d been given, asking for more flights per week than he was allowed (what’s the point of being able to fly to golf, but not being able to fly back?) that a local environmental protection group heard about the plan and took up the fight in court – eventually shutting down the project.

But that’s another story – or stories.

Auckland Councillor Pippa Coom says the local board has recommended full notification in the Westmere helipad application.

Should we be travelling by helicopter anyway?

The Williams-Mowbray application is for two flights a day, seven days a week. That’s starting to look like commuting by helicopter, objectors say.

The Mowbray siblings own the large, semi-rural property at Coatesville, north of the Auckland city centre, formerly known as the Chrisco mansion, after the hampers family, and then the Dotcom mansion when internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom lived there with his family.

That house already has a helipad. Adding one to the Westmere property would allow the siblings to commute to each other’s places for work.

Which of course would be way more convenient than having to deal with Auckland traffic.

But should we be commuting by helicopter? 

Two flights a day is actually six helicopter trips altogether. Most people with private helipads don’t own their own helicopter, so getting someone from A to B and back means a helicopter taking off from its home base (Heletranz in Albany, for example) flying down to Westmere or Herne Bay, landing, loading up with a passenger or passengers, taking off again to fly to Coatesville or Waiheke or a golf course, landing, dropping people off, taking off again and then flying back to base.

Then doing the whole thing in reverse to get people home.

The trouble is that helicopter engines burn more fuel and emit far more CO2 emissions than cars do over the same distance. Let alone a bus or a boat.

The Uber Copter travels between Manhattan and JFK Airport in New York. Photo: Uber

When Uber started up its Uber Copter service in New York in 2019, Canadian news website Vice wrote an article headlined ‘You can now Uber a helicopter, but you probably shouldn’t’, pointing out the harm from pollution and climate change caused by a select few trying to get from downtown to the airport more quickly.

“There are many environmental and health impacts from helicopters – all of them negative,” John Dellaportas, president of Stop the Chop, argued in an interview with Vice. “It makes the air we breathe worse.”

Westmere residents Jeanette Budgett and Tom Dignan make similar points in a letter to council planner Jackson Morgan sent last week objecting to the Williams-Mowbray helipad

“The proposed number of daily flights appears to endorse the idea that helicopters are a suitable form of commuter transportation for an inner-city residential property located on an efficient bus route and within a few kilometres of Hauraki Gulf ferries and the Mechanics Bay Heliport,” they say. 

“Set against this proposal is Auckland City Council’s Climate Plan which lays out goals to achieve a low carbon, compact city supported by a comprehensive public transport system. 

“The conflicting values of this commendable city plan and the worrying precedent proposed here could not be more stark.”

The ‘black art’ of acoustics

Don Mathieson runs a computing company and is co-chair of the Herne Bay Residents Association.

He remembers the first heliport in the suburb, consented in 2011. It went in at the clifftop home of an Auckland surgeon, John Dunn, who flew his own helicopter and spent the weekends at Pauanui.

Dunn had permission for a small and relatively quiet helicopter, Mathieson says. But when his house was sold to Ben Cook, one of the largest retail property owners in the city, he started using commercial operators with much more powerful aircraft.

“It’s much louder,” Mathieson says. “Neighbours can’t watch TV or talk on the phone when it comes in, but the council appears reluctant to do anything to force him to abide by the conditions of his consent.”

Cook gets 10 flights a week.

Since then there have been two other helipads go in on nearby Cremorne Street, Mathieson say. One owner got permission for six flights a week, with no more than two a day. The other was allowed two a week, but no more than one a day – the owner is now applying to increase that to 104 a year. 

Mathieson says because there are no helicopter-specific noise rules, council uses lawn mower noise as a benchmark for judging unacceptable helicopter noise. But the noise of a helicopter is far more intrusive.

“There’s a high sound pressure level at every frequency, from a high-pitched screaming to a low beep beep. It certainly impacts on someone’s peaceful enjoyment of their property.”

Objectors argue helicopter noise will carry across the bay to surrounding houses and parks. Phot0: Google Earth

The 19-page acoustic report submitted as part of the Westmere helipad application is technical and complicated, but concludes:

“The assessment of the noise from the proposed helipad has been based on field measurements undertaken of an EC130 (now Airbus Helicopter H130) helicopter landing and taking off, the technical specifications available in the Aviation Environmental Design Tool prediction model plus adopting the requirements of NZS 6807:1994 Noise Management and Land Use Planning for Helicopter Landing Areas. Based on up to 2 flights (2 approaches and 2 departures) a day the requirements of Rule E25.6.32 will be complied with.”

Mathieson is sceptical.

“Acoustics is a black art; you can do virtually anything with the right consultant.”

A new normal

Budgett and Dignan worry that the more helipads get consented, the more normal it will become for wealthy people to get one at their place, and the more intrusive they will become for neighbours and people out on the water and using local reserves and beaches.

​​”Compact cities need to protect and uphold broad public amenity and environmental values more than ever. If approval is given for this activity on such a sensitive, visible and prominent site, Auckland City will have no recourse to decline this kind of proposal in future.”

Helicopters have become such a nuisance on Waiheke, which has 48 helipads, that group of locals have set up Quiet Skies Waiheke and are trying to get a moratorium on any new helipad permits until council creates some rules.

Town planning consultant Mark Benjamin from Mt Hobson Group, which prepared the application for Williams and Mowbray, doesn’t see it that way.

“I also note that the flight of helicopters within the urban area is expected and would not detract from the urban context. As an example, the presence of helicopters within urban residential areas is no different to a police helicopter flight flying over an urban area.”

Maybe, maybe not.

However, comments at the bottom of a NZ Herald article about the Williams-Mowbray helipad application suggest there’s a range of public opinion.

“Nobs need to take their toys to outlying areas and not inflict them and their noise on  those living as normal residents,” says Helen S. “These ‘look at me’ types are just not wanted in Herne Bay or Westmere. Go away.”

But Margaret G doesn’t agree: “People forget that sometimes the faster people like Anna can get to meetings and achieve things faster means it helps our economy and increases the ability for them to employ more people in NZ.”

And Dave B: “How dare they do whatever they please with their own property! Outrageous…”

‘Short effects can be adverse’  

Andy Coleman was part of the Kawau Island Action group that took Rod Duke to court to prevent his helipad going ahead. They won, but it took months, and cost $50,000, even with their lawyers working at a significantly reduced rate.

He has no doubt that the number of applications for helipads in urban Auckland will continue to increase and that people need to fight them at an early stage, before they get approved. 

He says High Court judge Christine Gordon in the Duke case looked carefully at whether the helicopter would be conspicuous for people using local parks, reserves or even out on the water and rejected council arguments that a helicopter was only there for a short time, so the impact was limited. A helicopter was as potentially harmful as a building in terms of planning, Mathieson says about the Gordon decision.

“She said short effects can be adverse, that there is nothing in the Resource Management Act to say that seeing it even for a second is not adverse.”

The site for helicopter landings at the Williams-Mowbray house in Westmere. Photo: Mt Hobson Group report

Planning consultant Mark Benjamin says the Williams-Mowbray house is relatively secluded. 

“Whilst I acknowledge that the activity is adjacent to the coastal marine area, this part of the coast is not considered to be heavily utilised for recreational activity – there is no “beach” per se; no formal walkways or esplanade reserves under the flightpath and the landing area is set back from and above the site boundary and adjacent publicly accessible coastal area.”

Adverse effects on the environment would be “less than minor”, Benjamin says.

Coleman advised getting as much local support as possible if objectors wanted to sway the council.

“Public interest was taken as an issue in the Sentinel Beach case. So the more noise they make the better for them. I would suggest they bombard the council with objections.

“If they don’t do anything it will be approved, for sure.”

Pushing for a helipad ban

Meanwhile, as council planners ponder the Westmere application (in theory they have 20 working days, although that could be extended), the Auckland Council Planning Committee will today consider arguments that helipads should be banned altogether. 

One of the people speaking at today’s committee meeting is another member of the Herne Bay Residents Association, Dirk Hudig.

“We believe helicopter launch pads in a city are just not suitable, and shouldn’t be permitted,” Hudig says. “Once they are there, you can’t take them away – they are there in perpetuity.”

He says in the past when he called for a change to the Unitary Plan to ban private helipads he was told the process, with the research, advertising and hearings required, is expensive, and not worth it for the small number of helipads involved.

But he says that’s not the case any more.

“Numbers are growing. A decade ago there were none in Herne Bay and a handful in Waiheke. Now it’s becoming a political issue on Waiheke and it’s moving along the coast from Herne Bay round to Westmere.

“There are plenty of properties where you could apply to put a heliport.”

Auckland Councillor Pippa Coom would like to see private helipads banned. Photo:

Councillor Pippa Coom says she shares the community’s concern around the environmental and social impact of helicopter landings and take-offs in residential areas.  

“I would be supportive of a change in the activity status from ‘non-complying’ to ‘prohibited’ but this will be a lengthy process requiring a plan change,” she told Newsroom.  “At the moment we’ve been advised there are no resources to do that before the Unitary Plan is reviewed in 2026, however I am waiting for the response from staff on that point and also to determine next steps. 

“For example, one option might be for me to bring a Notice of Motion to the Planning Committee next year requesting work gets underway on the plan change.”

Newsroom approached Williams and Mowbray for comment through their planning consultants, but did not receive a reply.

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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