As the heat mounts over the proliferation of helipads around Auckland, the big question is why city officials seem so reluctant to do anything to stop them, and when that will change. Part one of a three-part Summer Newsroom series
Jeanette Budgett has never been a particularly avid birdwatcher – until now.
In 2022, Budgett, whose day job is as senior lecturer at Unitec’s School of Architecture, has spent a good proportion of her free time walking and kayaking around a small headland near her home in the Auckland suburb of Westmere, counting and photographing the birds that forage and roost there.
The reason for her new passion? Helipads.
Budgett is part of a group calling itself Quiet Sky Waitematā. It was set up to fight a plan by former All Black star Ali Williams and his rich-lister-family partner Anna Mowbray to build a helipad on their $24 million, 4500-square-metre property. It’s now one part of a growing movement in central Auckland, and on Waiheke and Aotea/Great Barrier islands, to stop the proliferation of private helipads built by wealthy individuals so they can get more quickly and easily to holiday homes, or the golf course, or even to work.
Over the last few months the movement against private helipads has grown in size and in scope. Quiet Sky Waitematā has around 200 members and there is a Quiet Skies Waiheke group, plus opposition from mana whenua and others on Aotea/Great Barrier Island. The Waitematā, Waiheke and Aotea local boards have all come out in support of banning any more private helipads, as have a couple of politicians – Auckland Central MP Chloë Swarbrick and recently reappointed Auckland councillor Mike Lee.
The protestors are fighting on a number of fronts at both local and national level – civil aviation rules, climate change transport policy, noise control, conservation and marine protection.
Budgett’s piece of the puzzle is the potential impact on birdlife and the marine environment.
Bar-tailed godwits have arrived on the rocks and mudflats of Piper Point, she tells Newsroom just before Christmas. The birds, on the Department of Conservation’s “at risk, declining” conservation status list, will spend the summer there following their mammoth non-stop journey from Alaska.
Over the winter, two types of endangered dotterels roosted and foraged at the point before heading away for nesting sites elsewhere, Budgett says. Meanwhile, a family of Caspian terns (‘threatened, nationally vulnerable’) have spent the year on the mudflats and there are large numbers of oystercatchers (‘at risk, recovering’).
‘Nationally vulnerable’ species face a “high risk of extinction in the medium term”, according to DoC.
“I counted 170 oystercatchers this week. On October 7, I counted up to 72 godwits.”
Conservation group Forest & Bird has added its voice to the movement as part of a wider Hauraki Gulf protection campaign launched in December. Arohatia Tīkapa Moana | Love the Gulf “is focused on restoring the environment and species which call the Gulf home”. And that includes the seabirds, says Carl Morgan, regional conservation manager for Auckland.
While there hasn’t been much research on the impacts on wildlife of helicopters in Auckland, Morgan sends Newsroom a list of literature, both domestic and international, around the potential for physical damage (collision, hearing loss), altered behaviour, decreased breeding success, and physiological stress.
“Helicopters leaving and/or landing disrupt and displace indigenous wildlife which impacts on our vulnerable populations’ nesting, feeding and reproduction,” he says.
For example, each time a helicopter takes off or lands, the birds will fly up. And that movement expends energy the birds need. It also takes them away from the feeding ground, so it’s potentially more difficult for them to replace that energy.
“This disturbance has been proven to lead to physiological stresses from energy expenditure. Also, they rely on certain tides to feed, so if a helicopter comes in and then the birds don’t come back in time, they might not be feeding enough, or they might not be feeding their chicks.”
Already 67 percent of shorebirds and seabirds that used to be in the Hauraki Gulf have been lost since human occupation, Morgan says, and of the 70 species that remain, 22 percent are classified as threatened and 56 percent ‘at risk’.
Almost 60 percent of the species are found only in New Zealand.
“Those [DoC] risk classifications show a grim trajectory, and stresses and sustained disturbances lead to decreased breeding successes. We want to be giving them the best possible chance for these birds not just to maintain their numbers but to increase them.
“We want to see national and regional policies amended so known impacts to these species [like disturbances from helicopters] is taken into consideration.”
Ali Williams did not speak to Newsroom for this story, though in the past he has said he wants the best outcome for his family home and the environment. “We love the wildlife,” he said.
In December, Quiet Sky Waitematā learnt the former All Black had got council approval for a seawall to support his building and helipad plans.
“This will certainly disrupt the roost,” Budgett says.
Helipad applications increase
Fighting the Westmere helipad has already involved a huge amount of (unpaid) work for locals. And although the application is on hold for the time being, potentially while Williams and Mowbray commission an ecological study, it could start getting seriously expensive if protestors have to hire lawyers and go to court.
In 2019, a plan by Briscoes boss Rod Duke to turn a boat shed on an inner city beach into a Thunderbirds-style helipad was finally stopped, but not after a protracted legal battle, including cases in the High Court and the Environment Court. The fight was led by Andy Coleman of marine protection environmental group Kawau Island Action and the Herne Bay Residents Association.
Auckland Council had originally given Duke permission to convert the boat shed to a helipad without public notification, despite the fact it would allow helicopters to land over the heads of people on the beach. The first locals knew of the plan was when Duke himself appealed a decision to grant him only three flights a week, not the six he had asked for.
Duke at the time was worth $750 million, according to the NBR Rich List. Coleman got help with cut-price legal fees and supporters put in money, but fighting the Sentinel Beach helipad wouldn’t have been cheap.
So far council has not yet made a decision even on whether the Williams-Mowbray Westmere helipad proposal should be ‘notified’ – giving the public the opportunity to have a say – let alone whether to allow it to go ahead. Quiet Sky worries the application may end up in the Environment Court – either by a process known as ‘direct deferral’, which arguably costs the council less but public submitters more, or by a public notification process being appealed.
“Apparent council indecision and their pushing a case to the Environment Court can result in protracted and expensive wrangling,” Budgett says.
A recent case (unrelated to helipads) involving Waiheke residents complaining about noise and disruption at Cable Bay vineyard resulted in legal costs of more than $400,000.
“It’s slightly scary when you understand how expensive it could all be.”
On the other hand, another rich-list couple – property and marina developer Simon Herbert and his former Miss New Zealand wife Paula – backed down on a bid to double the number of flights allowed at their existing helipad in Herne Bay, the same suburb where Rod Duke lives and wanted his helipad, after locals got wind of the plan.
The Herbert application was initially put up for limited notification (when only direct neighbours are asked to submit), but a wider group, including Quiet Sky Waitematā and the local residents’ association, lobbied the couple. The Herberts initially agreed to a wider notification, and later dropped the application altogether.
Their present consent allows them one landing and take-off a day, a maximum of two per week and 104 in a year.
Budgett says it should be Auckland Council taking action, not members of the public. “We don’t accept that the public should have to defend at great cost what we believe is already protected by various acts, policies and regulation.”
There’s a similar message from Kim Whitaker, a spokesperson for Quiet Sky Waiheke. This time last year, Waiheke residents were concerned about just under 50 consented helipads on the island. Now there are 61 and the number is growing.
The group is prepared to fight, but doesn’t want to have to.
“We aren’t wealthy people. We are an advocacy group without huge resources and we aren’t really in a position to go out and hire a lawyer. Hopefully the council will see sense, or we will have to think about what our next move is,” Whitaker says.
“We will keep pursuing it because it’s an increasingly important issue for the electorate and aren’t we living in a democracy?”
The council argues its hands are tied.
“Any changes to the Auckland Unitary Plan to make helicopter activity prohibited in residential and coastal areas would need to meet an extremely high legal bar,” Megan Tyler, Auckland Council’s chief of strategy in its planning office, wrote in an opinion piece in the council’s Our Auckland publication.
“The first challenge we face is that our authority is limited to consideration of take-offs and landings including noise, number of flights and the visual impacts of helipads. Regulating overflying activity comes under Civil Aviation Authority rules and is mostly limited to the airspace over airports.
“It would be difficult to justify a blanket prohibition on recreational helicopters in residential areas and there would likely be substantial opposition.”
Substantial opposition from a small number of people with plenty of money to fight is the unstated problem, according to Auckland councillor Mike Lee. He says the only people who are going to be objecting to any change are those with the wealth to own coastal property, who don’t already have a helipad (permits last forever under the present rules), and who would like to use a helicopter for transport – likely to a holiday home, a day out, work trips, or to the golf course.
As the map above shows, most private helipads on Waiheke (and all private residential ones in central Auckland suburbs, although they are not shown on the map) are on coastal sections or up estuaries; flight rules say private helicopters should be taking off and landing over the water.
“The council is not going to be faced with the mass ranks of millionaires marching up Queen St [to protest against a change to the Auckland Unitary Plan putting restrictions on helicopters],” Lee says. “The rules as they stand are serving the interests of this very small minority, and the majority are being penalised by this very small minority.”
Lee argues most people in central Auckland, Waiheke and Aotea/Great Barrier would support a reduction in the number of helicopter flights and a moratorium for helipad consents. But the city planners aren’t listening.
“The council says, ‘Under the letter of the law we have to grant consents.’ But what is lawful, is amending the plan to make it prohibited activity. But council officers say that isn’t desirable.
“So you have this situation where what the community desires is unlawful, and what is lawful, the council officers don’t desire. This has to change.”
Lee, a seasoned Auckland politician, tried to raise the issue of making recreational helicopter landings a prohibited activity as an extraordinary item at the December meeting of the council’s Planning, Environment and Parks Committee, but was pushed back to February.
“They promised to do it this year, but they are saying they are overworked [with other national and local issues]. They say by February they hope to be consulting with local boards, and they won’t be reporting back until sometime after that.
“Knowing the pace they adopt, we’ll be lucky to see anything before Easter. And in the meantime applications will be going in like nobody’s business to get helipads consented before anything changes.”
Auckland Council’s manager of regional planning, Warren MacLennan, told Newsroom “plan changes are long and complex processes which require comprehensive research to ensure they are well informed”.
He says the process of gathering historical and current flight data had started in May 2022, and would go on through the busy summer period, including “looking at flight log information from helicopter resource consent holders on Waiheke Island and central Auckland… in order to determine extent of compliance and assist with an evidence-base of effects”.
This process is well underway, he says, “but we still need to complete the gathering of flight data, particularly over the peak summer period to ensure our research accurately reflects the current situation”.
“Once this step has been completed, we will need to go back to the relevant local boards, before we bring our findings and recommendations to the Planning, Environment and Parks Committee.”
Staff would then put forward options to address helicopter activity across the Auckland region.
He says the refusal to allow Lee to discuss the issue before the Christmas meeting was procedural.
“Councillor Lee’s request to speak to this at the Committee in December was declined due to it not meeting the standing orders. However, the Chair and council officers met with him ahead of the committee to listen to his concerns and update him on progress to date.
“While Councillor Lee was unable to bring the topic to the Committee as a formality, the Chair allowed him to speak at the meeting about his concerns. Council officers acknowledged these concerns and confirmed that councillors would be receiving an update on the issue in a memo later in the month.”
That memo was delivered on December 22.