In the final part of a three-part Newsroom series, anti-helicopter protestors say Auckland Council is ignoring its own, and national, government rules each time it gives permission for yet another helipad in someone’s garden. But why?

It seemed a pretty ordinary bit of Auckland Council business – item seven of the December 8 Planning, Environment and Parks committee: Helicopter landing pads in the Auckland central suburbs and on Waiheke and Aotea Great Barrier Islands. 

The language of the people around the table was polite council-speak – ‘mays’ and ‘considers’ and ‘options’.

First, newly re-elected councillor Mike Lee “foreshadowed to the committee a request staff proceed with plan changes to the Auckland Unitary plan and the Hauraki Gulf District Plan considering making recreational helicopter landing pads a prohibited activity”.

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Then Megan Tyler, chief of strategy at the Auckland Chief Planning Office replied her team was “working with our resource consent and compliance colleagues on a set of options… around the helicopter matter… which may include a plan change [although] there may be other options”.

It was all over in a few minutes. But the reaction from the anti-helicopter lobby groups was swift.

“Really Megan?” “Jaw-dropping”, and “incomprehensible”, was the feedback from Quiet Sky Waiheke.

The group was furious about Tyler’s implication there might be an option other than changing the rules around private helipads, which have proliferated on Waiheke Island and elsewhere in coastal Auckland over the past couple of years.

“One jaw-dropping moment happened (at 10 mins 50 in the video of the council proceedings) when Megan seemed to suggest that a plan change might not be the suggested outcome,” the Quiet Sky post says.

“This is incomprehensible, given that council has to, under the law, enact plan changes to give effect to New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement (NZCPS), which has strict rules requiring no adverse impacts on threatened native species.”

Megan Tyler answers questions on helipads at a council meeting in December. From council video.

The Coastal Policy Statement has been in force since 2010 and is specifically referenced in an Auckland Council ‘practice and guidance’ note on helicopters dated July 2022. Policy 11 of the statement protects rare or threatened species, and their habitats, from any “adverse effects of activities”.

The council’s own helicopter document is unequivocal about the intention of the measure.

“This policy sets an extremely high threshold, making clear that no adverse effect is acceptable – regardless of its significance. 

“The noise and aural impact of a helicopter can affect biology in different ways. As such, resource consent applications for helicopter landing areas within a coastal environment should be supported by an assessment against the NZCPS, and supporting expert reporting, including on biodiversity.”  

Yet the consenting of helipads has continued without, Quiet Sky would argue, weight being placed on protecting native species.

Quiet Sky Waiheke spokesperson Kim Whitaker calls the council’s consenting process for helipads “illogical and ludicrous”.

“So many of those helipads are coastal; some that were recently consented are very close to particularly sensitive coastal areas. Yet council planning officers say they cannot currently consider [the coastal policy statement or its own helicopter guidance note] when processing helipad consent applications.”

Whitaker points to Waiheke’s Te Matuku Marine Reserve on the south east part of the island.

“It’s a beautiful area and there has been significant conservation work done there. You can see lots of species, including dotterels, yet recently there were two helipads consented at the bottom end of the bay.”

Two helipads were consented on the shores of the Te Matuku Marine Reserve. Map: Robin Tucker

Asked for comment on the Quiet Sky Waiheke concerns, Auckland Council sent Newsroom an email statement attributable to Brad Allen, its acting manager of central resource consents.

“Subject to meeting the permitted noise metrics for helipads, and being the only helipad on a site, the Auckland Council District Plan – Hauraki Gulf Islands section (ACDP:HGI) provides a possible pathway for helipad consents as a restricted discretionary activity. This narrows what we can take into consideration when assessing a consent. 

“Where an application is a restricted discretionary activity, consent decisions are only able to consider those matters of discretion specifically identified in the District Plan. For restricted discretionary helipads under the ACDP:HGI, discretion is restricted to: noise, and any visual effects of earthworks or retaining structures. 

“This means that, in relation to the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement (NZCPS), those matters which may be taken into consideration are also limited by the matters of discretion.”

Clear as mudflats.

In theory, the news should be better on the Auckland mainland, where helicopter takeoff and landing is a ‘non complying’, rather than a ‘restricted discretionary’ activity. In theory, this gives the council more power to regulate the number of helipads, although until recently, consents have tended to be granted without question.

This may be changing. Helipad objectors doing bird counts have seen endangered dotterels, godwits, Caspian terns, oystercatchers and other birds foraging and roosting on the mudflats below the garden where former All Black Ali Williams and his partner Anna Mowbray, director and co-founder of toys and consumer products company Zuru, want to build a helipad.

That application is on hold for the time being, with Williams and Mowbray understood to be considering commissioning an ecological study.

All Blacks’ mansion: ​​​​Helicopter v dotterel ​​​

NZ dotterels forage on the mudflats below the proposed helicopter landing site. Photo: Jeanette Budgett

Auckland Council’s Brad Allen says while the consenting body’s hands are tied when it comes to banning further helipads without a change in the unitary plan (scheduled for updating in 2026), it has more leeway when it comes to allowing the public to have a say with individual applications.

“It is important to note that when assessing consents for either discretionary or non-complying activities, notification is no longer precluded and the assessments are no longer restricted. Council therefore has full discretion to consider all relevant effects, plans and policies, as outlined in Council’s Practice and Guidance Note.”

Whitaker says there has been a history on Waiheke of helipad owners flying helicopters in without a valid consent. But when local residents or the local board complains, all that happens is the landowner applies for a consent and council planners approve it, without public notification.

A ‘ludicrous’ noise calculation

Meanwhile, the coastal policy statement isn’t the only national set of rules being ignored by Auckland Council planners when it comes to consenting helipads, Quiet Sky members say.

Section 15 of the Ministry for the Environment’s 2019 Noise and Vibration Metrics National Planning Standard (NPS-15) specifically outlaws the use of what is known as ‘averaging of noise impacts’ when it comes to helipad consenting. 

That’s when instead of measuring the noise of a particular helicopter takeoff or landing, applicants average the noise over a period – 24 hours or three days, for example.

“It’s a ludicrous noise calculation,” Whitaker says. “If you average the noise over a period, you can bring it down below an arbitrary 55 decibels barrier so you can claim it’s no louder than a lawnmower. And that’s what applicants do.

“This has been a key factor that has allowed consents to be granted.”

Auckland Council’s regional planning manager Warren MacLennan says there’s no urgency on bringing its rules in line with national guidelines.

“The National Planning Standards for Noise were introduced in 2019 and councils have 10 years to incorporate them into our plans,” he told Newsroom. “This is a comprehensive exercise and is currently scheduled to be completed as part of the review of the Auckland Unitary Plan, which would also incorporate the current Hauraki Gulf Islands Plan.”

The two plans are not due for review until 2026 by which time, Whitaker says, the number of consented helipads could be significantly higher.

“Government expects local policies to align with national policy within a reasonable time period. But Auckland Council is just carrying on without thinking about changing their policy. Which is how Megan [Tyler] can say its review ‘may’ include a plan change.” 

‘Double standards’ on emissions reduction

Helipad protest groups also point to a double standard between Auckland Council’s own recommendations around climate change and transport emissions, and its consenting of helipads.

The council’s Transport Emissions Reduction Pathway, released in August 2022, sets out a pathway for the region to reduce its transport emissions by 64 percent by 2030, including a tenfold increase in walking and cycling, a fivefold increase in public transport trips, and encouraging electric vehicles and low-emissions buses, trains and ferries.  

“Aucklanders understand and have told us that we have to move further and faster on climate change if we are to avoid an environmental disaster and create a sustainable future for our kids and grandkids,” then Mayor Phil Goff said at the launch of the plan.

“In Auckland, the biggest single source of carbon pollution is our transport system, which accounts for more than 40 percent of our region’s overall emissions.”

But Elena Keith, a spokesperson with Quiet Sky Waitematā, calls the pathway “anaemic” when it comes to helicopters. In an interview with Stuff, she says the pathway calls for New Zealand’s aviation emissions to be cut in half, but doesn’t address the city council’s own role in promoting helicopter use as a means of transport for tourists and rich Aucklanders.

“It makes the council look impotent by having no suggested actions for itself.”

Government and international figures put the amount of carbon dioxide released by a helicopter at orders of magnitude higher than those produced by a car, the article says. 

“A trip in an Airbus H130 helicopter to the Tara Iti golf course near Mangawhai, for example, would take 20 minutes and expel around 113kgs of CO2. Driving there would take an hour and a half and produce 17.1kgs.”

A blog on the NZ-based Planetary Ecology website calculates New Zealand has roughly six times as many helicopters as the US on a per capita basis.

Auckland Council chief sustainability officer Matthew Blaikie says while Auckland’s Transport Emissions Reduction Pathway (TERP) doesn’t specifically address private helicopter travel, it is captured under overall aviation emissions.

“Aviation activities in Tāmaki Makaurau are dominated by domestic and international flights at Auckland Airport, other activities include local helicopter, light aircraft, sightseeing and training flights. The total emissions from helicopter travel are considerably less than total emissions from private car travel. 

“Aviation emissions account for around 7 percent of Auckland’s emissions profile. The emissions reduction pathway in TERP requires that aviation emissions are reduced by 50 percent by 2030.

“TERP outlines that reducing emissions from aviation will be critical to achieving a 64 percent reduction in transport emissions by 2030.” 

Chlöe Swarbrick joins the fight

Anti-helicopter lobbyists are using other legislative pathways to argue their case.

Speaking in Parliament at the second reading of the Civil Aviation Bill in November, Green MP for Auckland Central, Chlöe Swarbrick, said the Government was missing an important opportunity to use the reform of the 1990 act to take action on the climate, community and conservation impacts of helicopters.

“The Civil Aviation Authority actually just doesn’t have the resources to do this stuff, particularly in these private airspaces.” 
– Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick

Swarbrick told MPs her discussions with former Mayor Phil Goff and new mayor Wayne Brown made it clear Auckland Council didn’t have the resources to deal with the impacts of private helicopters in terms of noise, wildlife and greenhouse gas emissions. That made it important these issues be addressed via civil aviation rules.

Existing legislation was basically focused on airports not private helipads, she said. So while the Civil Aviation Authority was able under the law to create “special use airspaces”, which could impose restrictions on air traffic in particular areas, in practice that didn’t happen.

“In my interactions with the Civil Aviation Authority and through the likes of the applications from the Waiheke Local Board and Quiet Sky Waiheke, what we have found is that the Civil Aviation Authority actually just doesn’t have the resources to do this stuff, particularly in these private airspaces.” 

And the new bill doesn’t improve matters. 

Chlöe Swarbrick, speaking at the 2nd reading of the civil aviation bill, said the Greens couldn’t support it. From Parliament TV

Swarbrick has proposed an amendment to the legislation which would force, rather than simply empower, the transport minister to make rules around aircraft noise abatement, to reduce the impact on local communities and on wildlife. This would apply anywhere, not just around airports.

Two other Green Party amendments aim to require the Civil Aviation legislation to better address climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

Helicopters and hunting

Meanwhile not-for-profit, the Environmental Defence Society, argues the Wildlife Act 1953 is an important piece of legislation when it comes to helipads in areas used by endangered wildlife.

In a letter to Department of Conservation director general Penny Nelson, copied to Auckland Council senior planner Jackson Morgan, EDS chief executive Gary Taylor argues the Ali Williams/Anna Mowbray helipad breaches the Wildlife Act.

The rocks and mudflats below the proposed helipad in the inner city suburb of Westmere are used by a range of threatened and at-risk birds, including dotterels, godwits, caspian terns and oystercatchers.

“EDS is concerned the proposed helicopter activity will disturb or harass the absolutely protected birds roosting and foraging in the location of the property, and therefore constitute an offence under section 63A of the Wildlife Act 1953,” Taylor says.                    

“Section 63A states that it is an offence to hunt or kill any absolutely or partially protected marine wildlife.”

While “hunt or kill” sounds irrelevant in an argument about a helipad, Taylor points to a Supreme Court decision in a case involving shark cage diving – Shark Experience v PauaMAC 5 – where the court widened the definition of ‘hunt or kill’ to include, in some situations, “pursuing, disturbing, or molesting any wildlife” in a manner unrelated to hunting or killing.

“As the court stated, to interpret hunt or kill in a narrower way ‘would leave species such as dotterels, kiwi and kea exposed to acts of harassment and molestation’,” Taylor says.

The Environmental Defence Society asked DoC to oppose the Westmere helipad application and also to call for it to be publicly notified, because of the potential it could breach the Wildlife Act.

Newsroom understands DoC has contacted Auckland Council, but says it isn’t able to take a position on the helipad application unless it is notified. 

‘Mysteriously reluctant’

Long-term Auckland Councillor Mike Lee, re-elected in October after three years out of office, calls himself a “passionate conservationist” and is strongly opposed to private helipads in Auckland.

He says he can’t understand why the council isn’t doing more.

“There seems to be a great deal of reluctance by Auckland Council planners to make any meaningful changes to how they manage helicopter landing, sites and the effects of helicopter travel. I don’t know why.

“They talk about objections, but the only people who would object are millionaires – aspiring people who could afford to have a helicopter landing pad in a residential area.

“What amazes me is not just the insensitivity of the applicants around peace and enjoyment being ruined for their neighbours, but how mysteriously reluctant council staff are to do anything about it.”

Mike Lee told council planners in December they should ban all private helipads. Photo: Supplied

Lee doesn’t believe change will have to wait for Auckland Unitary Plan review in 2026; public interest and media scrutiny will grow this year, he says.

“I’m confident the majority of councillors will listen very carefully to their colleagues on the local boards, and they in turn are responding to pleas from their respective communities – from remote Aotea Great Barrier Island, to Waiheke, which is facing the impacts of what some people say is over-tourism, to the historic central city bays.”

Auckland Council manager of regional planning, Warren MacLennan, told Newsroom staff have been gathering historical and current flight data since May last year, and this process will wrap up over the busy summer period. 

“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 will then put forward options to address helicopter activity across the Auckland region. 

As Chief Planning Office head of strategy Megan Tyler controversially suggested at the December meeting, this “may” include a plan change to restrict helipads and/or flights.

“Zilch, no helicopter applications, you don’t even get to ask.”
– Auckland councillor Mike Lee

Mike Lee isn’t optimistic the council report, when it lands over the next few weeks, will recommend any significant change. 

In which case, he has a plan B.

“I don’t want to talk about it yet, but I’m working on a strategy that may work – investing in a mechanism that might help if everything else fails.

“At that point, we will call for meaningful changes, including the possibility of making these things prohibited. Zilch, no helicopter applications, you don’t even get to ask.

“It’s allowed for in the Resource Management Act and certainly merits serious consideration.”

Lee says he’d like to see things start happening in the first half of the year.

“Council staff say [any move to ban helipads] will be appealed, but there certainly won’t be mass protests; no mass ranks of millionaires walking up Queen Street. The public will be right behind this.”

This is the final part of a three part Summer Newsroom series on the fight over helicopters over Auckland. See also parts 1 and 2:
Helipad fight: 2023 will be crucial, protestors say
Rotors over Waiheke, or paradise drowned out

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

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