Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area Act – is it working?
By Greg Presland
The Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area Act 2008 turned 5 this month and it is a good time to review how the Act is working and whether it is providing adequate protection for the Ranges.
I was involved in the development of the Act. I can recall an early meeting when Jonathan Hunt urged the Waitakere City Council to put in place meaningful protection by way of a local bill. I and a number of others had just been elected to the Waitakere City Council as part of the Team West ticket and one of our main policy planks was to protect the Ranges. The previous Council had attempted to free up subdivision and our election had reflected how unpopular this was with the locals.
The correct balance between environmental protection and allowing landowners to legitimately use their land was always a difficult thing to determine. I advocated for and the Legislation reflected a proposition that the Act should allow for existing development and subdivision rights to continue but the continuous easing of existing restrictions contained in the District Plan should not occur. The existing District Plan provisions should represent a minimum standard of protection below which protection standards would not be allowed to drop.
This proposal was motivated by the finding of the then Parliamentary Commissioner for the Enviroment Morgan Williams who said famously that if the system was not changed the Waitakere Ranges would suffer “death by a thousand cuts” caused by individual planning decisions that tended to push the envelope to maximise development and also the District Plan review process which almost inevitably led to weaker environmental standards over time. In particular the gradual lessening of subdivisional minimum lot sizes and the protection given to bush and trees could over time cause significant change to the local environment.
The Act was the subject of extensive review and consultation and 6 years after the start of the protection project the Act was enacted into law.
The Heritage Area covers 27,000 hectares of parkland and privately owned land and stretches from Titirangi through to Oratia, Henderson Valley, Swanson and all areas west of those places to the west coast beaches. It has been described as the lungs of Auckland and the West Coast beaches are legendary in their beauty.
One of the provisions of the Act, section 34, requires the Council to conduct 5 yearly reviews to report on how well the Act is performing. If there is significant degradation reported then obviously we will need to consider strengthening the provisions. The section requires environmental monitoring of the area, measurement of the progress made towards achieving the objectives of the Act and the funding implications arising from activities to be undertaken specifically to give effect to the Act.
In the preparation of the first report the area has been analyzed in relation to changes to landscape, development and consenting activity, ecosystems, cultural and built heritage, recreation and visiter management and people and communities. The results contained in the draft report from the first review are mostly pleasing. The report has not been formally adopted by Auckland Council as yet.
The landscape review, prepared by Melam Absulom, was based on field assessments conducted in a number of areas. Her assessment of landscape quality are that in 59 of 73 areas there has either been no change or a slightly positive change, and the remaining 14 areas have experienced minor negative changes, with the foothills being the area experiencing the most negative change. No major changes either way were identified. Adverse changes were caused primarily by the unsympathetic siting of homes and unfortunately by infrastructure developments by Auckland Transport. There are far too many areas of white concrete that have been built in the area or the siting of inappropriate transport signs and the Local Board is keen to reach an understanding with Auckland Transport so that AT developments respect the nature of the area.
In relation to consenting activity a further 76 lots have been created and 125 buildings and 198 building extensions have been approved. Demand for new development is said to have gradually reduced. The intent of the legislation to slow down development while at the same time preserving existing development rights appears to be occurring.
In terms of vegetation clearance each year there have been approximately 100 consents granted for vegetation clearance, primarily for the removal of individual trees. Overall the report estimates that vegetation clearance has occurred at the rate of 14 hectares per annum. Given the size of the area this is a reasonably good result.
The draft report notes that overall there are still 1600 actual or potential vacant lots in the area which could be built on. The draft report states that cumulative effects of development are now being addressed and commonly applied conditions relating to the use of recessive colours and materials and non reflective glazing and landscaping have reduced visual effects.
In relation to the state of the ecosystem the report acknowledges correctly the threat posed by the Kauri Dieback disease. Presently there is no cure, and if the spread of the disease is not stopped local Kauri face the prospect of extinction. There is very good work being performed by a Central Government/Local Government partnership but its funding is to be discontinued. This is a very shortsighted and frankly mean decision. Without Kauri the entire forest will be more vulnerable to threats.
Bird counts are relatively static and native ecosystems are otherwise in reasonably good shape. Since 2008 the amount of reserve land has increased by 170 hectares partially through the generosity of groups such as the Waitakere Ranges Protection Society.
Stream ecosystem showed good health with the Cascades stream having the highest quality purity in the region for all streams and the Opanuku ranked fifth.
Weeds continue to be a problem. The fracturing of the bush edge by felling and clearance makes invasion by weeds more prevalent.
In relation to visitor numbers the West Coast beaches continue to be the main draw cards although interestingly Piha’s visitor numbers have dropped over the past few years. It may be that the television show Piha Rescue has deterred people from visiting. The use of the park itself has increased although of concern is the role of visitors in the spread of Kauri Dieback.
With regards to people and communities the cancellation of the 2011 census has restricted the amount of data available and made analysis more difficult. The report notes however the myriad of groups and communities dedicated in a number of ways to preserving and enhancing the ranges area.
Overall the report is a welcome endorsement of the approach taken by the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area Act 2008 while at the same time noting areas of concern and also identifying areas where more and better monitoring is required. The Waitakere Ranges are a taonga and make the area a special place to live in. We owe it to future generations to try and preserve the Waitakere Ranges the way it is now.