24 Jun 2013

Voices to defend city’s volcanic views remain unheard

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Written by: Brian Rudman
Photo: Richard Robinson
Published: The New Zealand Herald – 24 June 2013

At this stage it was too soon to have analysed what was worrying Aucklanders, saysDeputy Mayor Penny Hulse.

At this stage it was too soon to have analysed what was worrying Aucklanders, saysDeputy Mayor Penny Hulse.

Is it any wonder Auckland Council is having a hard time selling the Unitary Plan to the rest of us?

Last Wednesday, Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse and head of regional and local planning Penny Pirrit told a media briefing they’d received 22,700 submissions, but at this stage it was too soon to have analysed what was worrying Aucklanders.

Yet the very next day councillors were summonsed to a secret workshop on the vexatious issue of development height limits in which feedback from the Property Council, Fletcher Developments and TramLease was outlined.

Conspicuously absent was any counterbalancing reference to the submission from the Auckland Volcanic Cones Society, or from community groups which take a rather contrary view to that of the developers.

Councillors were supplied documentation reporting that the Property Council, Fletchers and TramLease had “concerns about the impact of volcanic view shafts”. The developers had submitted that the proposed 14.5m/4-storey lower ceiling for apartments “is too low to be economic” and that apartments need to be “at least 5 storeys (18m) but preferably 6”.

That developers want to push the height boundaries is hardly a surprise. What is concerning is that a briefing paper to a direction-setting meeting for councillors fails to include any opposing viewpoint, except a passing reference to “some feedback” arguing for stronger protection.

Why no mention of the Volcanic Cones Society submission which outlines the unique nature of Auckland, built, as it is, on 63 volcanoes?

“The volcanic cones are one of the main landscape statements for Auckland” and this “has to be maintained if the city is to retain its unique character. Controls need to be in place to achieve this end”.

A set of volcanic view shaft controls was implemented 35 years ago to protect views to the cones from key points across the isthmus. They were recently updated and eventually will be incorporated into the Unitary Plan.

Defenders of the view shafts are worried that proposals within the Unitary Plan to allow developers to appeal against the restrictions imposed by the view shafts in certain circumstances threatens the integrity of the view network.

The cones society says “this is too complicated”. Instead of providing developers possible loopholes, the plan should simply spell out that any breach of the view shafts is “prohibited”.

The briefing paper acknowledges ” a lot of tension between the proposed zone heights and the volcanic view shafts” in many areas. The most extreme case is in parts of Newmarket, where the proposed development height limit is 33m or twice the height of the bottom of the view shaft.

There are several others. At St Lukes, a local view shaft crosses the proposed town centre at a height of 8m, but the proposed development height is 30m. At Mt Albert, the height limit of 15m clashes with a view shaft starting at ground level.

At Panmure, a view shaft starts at 4m above ground level, but the zone height is 30 metres. At Royal Oak, the view shaft crosses at 11 metres, the zone height is 30 metres.

There are similar clashes at Upper Symonds St, Devonport and Mt Eden.

The briefing paper comes up with three “recommended principles” which, in the spirit of the old Oracles of Greece, seem to offer a bob each way on this crucial issue.

The first is encouraging. It suggests “the volcanic view shaft heights should clearly over-ride zone heights”. The second proposes that the Terraced Housing and Apartment Buildings zone, which allows four- to six-storey blocks, should not be applied within the Blanket Height Sensitive Areas around volcanoes which limits buildings to a height of 8 metres. Given Principle 1, what else could they suggest?

However, the third “recommended principle” seems to contradict the other two. It says that the Blanket Height Sensitive Areas around the edges of the volcanoes, “should not overly constrain development in Town and Local Centre zones”.

So, on the one hand, they’re saying no development over 8m around volcanoes. But, on the other, let’s not take Principle 1 too seriously. Let’s be flexible. The trouble is, with views, flexibility is not an option. Once a building is allowed to breach the bottom of a shaft, a view of the mountain is blocked for good – and a precedent is set which judges will be free to follow when future developers come knocking.

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