The plight of urban trees

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Two recent news stories highlight the threats being faced by our urban forest.

The world famous Paturoa Kauri has a new resident. Johno Smith decided to set up home in its branches after the chainsaws made an unexpected reappearance at the site.

And in Margan Ave in New Lynn concerned members of the community chose to climb the branches of two Pohutukawa after the trees’ neighbours were felled to make way for new housing.

The stories have similar themes. In both cases approval to fell the trees was granted without formal notice being given to the neighbours or to the public at large. And you have to wonder at the weighting given to the intrinsic benefit offered by the trees by the decision makers because in both cases the trees are noteworthy in their own right.

It is not as if trees are not valued. In these post COP21 times when there is a world wide commitment to limiting global temperatures to 1.5 degrees celsius the importance of trees as sequesters of carbon is well recognised. In Titirangi, which is essentially a forest interspersed with homes and buildings, a wonderful gallery and some great cafes, trees not only give the area its special character but they fulfil the very important function of giving stability to hills that are inherently unstable. Your neighbour cutting down his tree may not only reduce your amenity, it may also threaten the stability of your property. And in New Lynn the Margan Ave Pohutukawa have provided shelter and amenity in an area that is becoming increasingly urban.

So what has gone wrong?

Changes to the Resource Management Act have played their part. The desire to “decrease red tape” and to “simplify” the process has led to changes that have reduced the need to notify applications. I believe this is retrograde. A contested decision making process where alternative views are presented and the opinions of the experts are tested can often result in an improved result. Neighbours have a legitimate expectation to be advised of significant developments which if not done properly can affect their property.

And the removal of tree protection rules on urban residential properties has resulted in a number of prominent trees facing an untimely death. The sound of chainsaws and the disappearance of previously loved trees is becoming increasing regular phenomena.

In my opinion there are also problems with the way that Auckland’s planning rules are being applied.

The Margan Ave development is being conducted as a special housing area development. This means an accelerated consenting process and no notification of what is intended. While speed is not necessarily bad the default position should be that trees are retained unless there is good reason not to do so. The site is very large and the development could have been done in such a way that the trees were retained. In the United Kingdom a Planning Authority is required by law to consider the protection and planting of trees when granting planning permission for a proposed development. Auckland should have the same requirement.

The Paturoa Kauri could have been saved if the construction of a smaller house had been consented to. The Unitary Plan requires Council to avoid high quality vegetation. Allowing a smaller area to be cleared would have saved the tree.

In my view the pendulum has swung too far in favour of landowners and away from tree protection. There are very good reasons for community protection of trees, whether because of amenity, site stability, carbon sequestration or providing a habitat for local fauna. The incidents involving the Paturoa Kauri and the Margan Ave Pohutukawa demonstrate that we need to review our current tree protection measures. Urgently.

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