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  • Writer's pictureGrant McLachlan - New Zealand Herald - Column

Protected trees are falling to council incompetence

The Auckland Council is causing serious environmental damage due to decisions based on dubious information. In many cases, officials won't acknowledge oversights or remedy the problems. Information is either not properly recorded, not properly collected, or not properly scrutinised.

Recently, three protected 80-year-old pecan trees in Avondale were felled. It was discovered that the council records "inadvertently" scheduled the trees on a neighbouring property.

Following the fiasco in Avondale, the Tree Council conducted an audit of the council's schedule of protected trees in the surrounding area and found that over two-thirds of entries were wrong.

Landowners often protect trees from successive owners. If the council doesn't follow the proper processes or record the information accurately, it is effectively a green light to fell protected trees before anyone else discovers the mistake.

In Snells Beach, the previous landowner of the 150-year-old Norfolk pine thought that the tree was protected, much like the other trees in the area gifted by Sir George Grey to early settlers. The landowner even carved off the land surrounding the tree to vest with the Crown as part of an esplanade reserve.

By the time he sold the land, his surveyor completed the necessary paperwork and the council had three years to take charge of the esplanade reserve. Problem is, the council didn't take charge of the land and as soon as the three years had lapsed, a developer changed a resource consent application to include the felling of the Norfolk pine.

The council didn't notify the resource consent application or the changes to it so no one knew that the tree would be felled. The developer's promotional material all showed the Norfolk pine as a feature.

The previous owner, who was now living in a house on the property, was awoken to chainsaws attacking the Norfolk pine. He discovered that the tree wasn't protected so immediately lodged an application with the council to protect it. The council said the application would take 18 months to process.

I rang around the local arborists and heritage experts. They knew the historical importance of the tree and refused to fell it. The developer, however, rang around and found arborists and heritage experts in far-flung parts of Auckland willing to fell the tree and state that the tree had no heritage value.

The "heritage experts" are the same firm used by developers in Titirangi to justify felling a healthy ancient kauri in 2015. That consent was thrown out by the Environmental Court.

For the Snells Beach Norfolk, the council accepted the evidence provided by these "experts". The council has since gone into damage control and simply hopes the problem will go away.

Elements inside the council annoyed by the pig-headedness of their bosses, tipped people off that the chainsaws would return. An arborist, protesting the tree's destruction, ascended the tree to protect it.

The local police turned up with council officials. When they thought the media had left, the police co-ordinated a plan to cut the tree down with the protester in it. While the chainsaws were cutting and axes swinging, police moved in to pull the protester out of the tree.

WorkSafe, the Independent Police Conduct Authority, and the council were alerted. WorkSafe told the media that it wasn't investigating. It told me that the matter was referred to the same police who are being investigated. I haven't heard anything from the council.

This whole situation was avoidable if the council had acted in a transparent manner.

When the development was advertised as "under way" in January, neighbours and the residents' association asked that the application be publicly notified. Instead, the council planners looked for any excuse to not notify the proposed development's resource consent application.

Under the Resource Management Act, consent authorities retain a discretion to notify applications if it would assist in achieving the purpose of the act. Making good decisions relies on good information. Local knowledge can protect the environment from adverse effects. It can make the process more efficient.

Instead, the council applied the dubious "streamlining" option in force since 2009, which disregards the effects on neighbours when considering whether to notify those neighbours.

If the resource consent application was publicly notified, there is no doubt that hearings commissioners would have had the best information submitted when making a decision. Instead, we have this mess that the council has arrogantly taken the stance, "Challenge us in court. It's expensive."

Ratepayers shouldn't be bludgeoned with their own money. The Local Government Act requires councils to act in the interests of its communities as a whole, not just the vested interests of developers.

If the council messed up, admit it. If the council can't trust its own resources, say it. Then try to restore confidence by putting in place measures until this mess is sorted out.

* Grant McLachlan is an environmental and infrastructure specialist.

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