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  • Grant McLachlan

Eco-terrorism Snells Beach style

It started as a group who appeared to be well-meaning bird photographers. When they failed to get recognition and legitimacy from respected conservation organisations, their campaign descended into envy, sabotage, fraud, subterfuge, bullying, and manipulation of council officials.

Michele MacKenzie and a NZ dotterel (Courtesy Local Matters)

I first met Michele MacKenzie in September 2017. The raspy, chain-smoking Martins Bay resident was helping her friend Duncan Morison sabotage efforts to develop what is now the 33-house Boathouse Bay. This development:

Boathouse Bay (Click to enlarge)

Duncan Morison used to own the beachfront property at the end of Arabella Lane in Snells Beach. In December 2012, he gained resource consent to subdivide the top terrace and back lot from the bottom terrace. He was not, however, happy with how the council wanted to take so much of his front lawn that stepped onto the beach.

19 November 2012 Scheme Plan (Click to enlarge)

Morison then applied on February 2013 to subdivide the front lot into 17 residential lots.

11 November 2012 Scheme Plan (Click to enlarge)

The application was to be publicly notified but was instead withdrawn. Morison wanted more of the reserve for his development:

From page 9 of resource consent application.

Morison then sold the property but remained at the property.

The purchaser then got a developer involved. Surveyors, planners, and engineers started appearing.

Things then got ugly. Didsbury’s house was fire-bombed on the night of 25 February 2015. Morrison’s boat was sunk not far from the house.

On 23 December 2015, Richard Didsbury signed a confidential deal with the developer. Didsbury would help get the 33-house resource consent through the council non-notified in return for Didsbury getting a discounted lot, encumbrances removed, and involvement in a future development. (For more, read this article.)

Resource consent for the Boathouse Bay development was granted on 25 July 2017. Then the developer tried to evict Morison from the site.

On 24 August 2017, Duncan Morison tried to nominate the Norfolk pine for protection, claiming it had historical importance. Download the document here:

170824 - Notable Tree Form
Download PDF • 1.29MB

Next, the developer sought to fell the Norfolk pine on the site.

Based on the ‘research’ and other information provided to me, I helped prepare a case for Michele MacKenzie and Duncan Morison to save the tree. The Tree Council got involved, an activist climbed the tree, the police were involved, the media covered the story, and I wrote columns in the Herald.

Michele MacKenzie got herself on primetime television. She spurted off claims and discredited authorities. She claimed the moral high ground. She said that she was right and everyone else was wrong.

4 October 2017 article (Courtesy Seven Sharp)

At the time, I thought that the information provided to me was legitimate.

But it was all bullshit.

I discovered later that Duncan Morison previously wanted to fell the tree too. He knew the tree wasn’t 150 years old. The tree held no historic or ecological importance. Council documents confirm this.

Excerpt from page 19 of Morison's 4 February 2013 resource consent application.

Morison asked Michele MacKenzie to front his smear campaign. Morison even provided to me copies of the ‘confidential’ deal between the developer and Didsbury.

If Michele MacKenzie was willing to manipulate a conservation group and lie on national television, what else was she willing to do?


On 29 October 2012 - months before Duncan Morison applied to subdivide his property - a newly formed group calling itself the Kawau Bay Shorebirds Awareness Group had the following article published in the Mahurangi Matters:

(Courtesy Local Matters)

The article was a recruiting drive. Following that article, nothing was heard from the group for six months. In that time, Duncan Morison withdrew his resource consent application. Then the following exchanges occurred in the Rodney Times over the span of two months:

(Courtesy of Kawau Bay Wowsers Awareness Group)

What started as a 'shorebird awareness' group descended quickly into targeting dog owners. How come?

Larry Phillips owns a beachfront property bordered on three sides by public walkways. Larry's roadside and esplanade reserve boundaries weren't fenced.

(Courtesy Auckland Geomaps.)

Larry Phillips lives on Sunburst Avenue. His neighbours immediately across the road are Chas and Pauline Benest. His other neighbours are Mark Dinniss, who would chair the Snells Beach Residents and Ratepayers Association (SBRRA), and the Taylors, who would also be on the SBRRA committee.

The chair of the SBRRA at the time was retired school principal, Bryan Jackson. His completely unfenced property is also bordered by reserve, road, and walkways:

(Courtesy Auckland Geomaps.)

The Kawau Bay Shorebirds Awareness Group appeared to go to ground for three years. Around the time that surveyors started to turn up at Duncan Morison's place, on March 2015 Larry Phillips re-started his letter-writing campaign. The following exchange occurred over the following month:

(Courtesy of Kawau Bay Wowsers Awareness Group)

So, Larry Phillips had gained the support of SBRRA. He, however, had failed to gain the support of the local branch of Forest & Bird nor the Department of Conservation it seems. Then the following strange letter from Larry Phillips appeared in the Rodney Times on 12 May 2016:

(Courtesy of Kawau Bay Wowsers Awareness Group)

It appeared that Larry Phillips had moved on. Based on the other letter, his neighbours had a new target: motorhomers.

Only a few days after those letters were published, the Rodney Local Board met on 18 May 2015. On the matter of the review of dog access rules for Snells Beach, the minutes read:

So, Auckland Council's Biodiversity staff didn't support Larry Phillips either.

Larry Phillips' campaign went into attack mode - working with Sandspit-based bird enthusiast Frances Hall - to discredit Forest & Bird:

(Courtesy of Kawau Bay Wowsers Awareness Group)

Forest & Bird lodged a submission stating that Snells Beach was not a significant wildlife area and favoured dog owner education over dog access restrictions. Here is the submission:

(Courtesy of Kawau Bay Wowsers Awareness Group)

Forest & Bird rightly pointed out that awareness and education was a practical first step to warn the public of the presence of protected wildlife and how to avoid disturbing the species. Signage was more effective than letter-writing campaigns and harassing people on the beach.

On the other hand, here is Larry Phillips' submission:

(Courtesy of Kawau Bay Wowsers Awareness Group)

Despite Larry's group having more than three years, he hadn't collected reputable statistics or scientific analysis supported by any respectable wildlife organisation. His submission was sloppy. Hardly convincing, huh?

And then there's Bryan Jackson's submission:

Dog Access Bylaw Review 2015

Your dog access area: Rodney

Contact details

First name: Bryan

Surname: Jackson


(if applicable):

Email address: Kbsretreat@xtra.co.nz

Postal address

(for correspondence): 41 Hampton mews Snells beach

Post code: 0920

Contact phone: 4259094

Preferred method of communication: By email

My local board area: Rodney local board

Do you want to speak in person on your submission? No

Do you own a dog? No

I accept by taking part in this public submission process that my submission (including

personal details, names and addresses) may be made public: Accept

Submission details

Q1. I agree with the following parts of the proposal. My reasons are:

I do not agree with the reduction in times dogs are allowed off leash

Q2. I disagree with the following parts of the proposal. My reasons are:

Too many dogs are off leash and out of control. We are sick of dogs pooing everywhere, running and jumping at children and adults. There is no enforcement for the daily illegal actions of dog owners. I am tired of dogs pooing on my property which is 50 metres from the beach. dogs frequently chase wildlife which is against the law.

Q3. My further comments on the proposal are:

I would like dogs at the beach or on the Reserve areas to be ON LEASH at ALL times.

Date of submission: 16 July 2015

Overall, the majority of submissions supported the original proposal, which recommended one rule for the full length of Snells Beach and extra time that dog walkers could access the beach. The arguments from the bird lobby and anti-dog lobby appeared weak.

On 28 August 2015, however, the Rodney Times ran the following story, quoting the chair of the committee that considered the dog access review, Greg Sayers:

(Courtesy Rodney Times)

Just a minute. "North of the boatramp"? "On leash at all times when not prohibited?" Where did that come from?

How is that a "win-win-win?" And who did Greg Sayers receive "strong local support" from?

Flabbergasted, I contacted Beth Houlbrooke and Phelan Pirie to figure out what was going on. Next thing I knew, I received an email from Greg Sayers.

Greg Sayers wanted to meet with me at the boatramp. While I waited, Greg appeared from the house closest to the boatramp:

(Courtesy Auckland Geomaps.)

See that boatramp? Dogs have to be on leash at all times north of it.

See that house with no fences along the esplanade reserve boundary? That's where Greg Sayers lived off-and-on (with Beth Houlbrooke) for some time. They were surrounded by the very people pushing for the controversial changes. They were his "strong local support." They even helped him with his election campaigns.

I put it to him that he'd been conned. I also pointed out that the new signs contradicted the new dog access rules:

What is the rule for the grass and walkways from Labour Weekend to 1 march, 10am-6.30pm?

Clue: There isn't one.

Greg wouldn't or couldn't backtrack. I couldn't rationalise with him that he'd been manipulated by his neighbours.

Then things got silly. The day before the new rules came into effect, on 22 October 2015, the following sign appeared on the edge of the garden next to the Sunburst Avenue boatramp:

Photo taken 22 October 2015 at garden next to Sunburst Avenue boatramp.

There were no nests of protected wildlife in the garden - just a sparrow's nest with three eggs behind a Hebe bush that had obviously been relocated there. Asking around, witnesses described a 'frizzy-haired lady' placing the nest there.

Why a sparrows nest? Does this have something to do with it?

(Left) NZ Dotterel eggs. (Right) Sparrow eggs.

Next, an elderly gentleman began feeding breadcrumbs to seagulls on the boatramp. When dogs walkers approached, he shouted at them.

Shortly after, former Rodney Local Board member June Turner started a campaign of harassment, accosting dogwalkers who didn't comply with the new rules. She barraged Animal Management with complaints. There were even reports that she was taking photographs of people. This woman:

June Turner and her husband.

June Turner did not make a submission for or against the new dog access rules. When a Rodney District councillor and Rodney Local Board member, June had no notable position about dog nuisance. Rather, June took it upon herself to become a public nuisance.

I wrote a column for the Rodney Times for their 3 November 2015 issue, highlighting that the dog bylaw had become more of a nuisance than any dog:

(Click to enlarge)

In response, Greg Sayers wrote a letter saying that dog owners will have another chance to change the rules in two years - completely avoiding the issue of the new rules north of the boatramp:

(Courtesy of Kawau Bay Wowsers Awareness Group)

Greg Sayers was not the only Rodney Local Board member completely out of touch. When someone asked on the Snells Beach Facebook page where they can walk their dogs on the beach during the day, Beth Houlbrooke and Phelan Pirie pointed to small beaches a half an hour drive away:

(Courtesy of Kawau Bay Wowsers Awareness Group)

So, the Rodney Local Board had pretty much washed their hands of the issue. The new dog rules (and the new target of Sunburst Avenue residents - motorhomers), however, populated the letters section for some time:

(Courtesy of Kawau Bay Wowsers Awareness Group)

The editor of the Rodney Times said that dog access to beaches looked like it would continue to be a 'hot topic' into 2016. Then, in early January 2016 (shortly after the developers of Boathouse Bay lodged their resource consent application on 23 December 2015) this appeared on the front lawn of the site:

(Click to enlarge)

New Zealand Dotterels nest and lay eggs in August and September. In January, however, for the first time the Department of Conservation fenced off a 150m² area of the front lawn and beach and erected a sign. The sign looked hastily made. The fenced area was trampled with recent footprints. The nest - on the edge of the lawn - was obviously man made. (Dotterel nests are often just a few claw scrapes in the sand.) See for yourself:

(Left) a Dotterel. (Right) the relocated nest. (Click to enlarge)

A mysterious 'frizzy-haired lady' was mentioned repeatedly by walkers and on social media. Who was she? Why did she relocate the nest?

Then the letters rolled into the Rodney Times:

(Courtesy of Kawau Bay Wowsers Awareness Group)

The editor made the note that:

"Some letters may have given the impression dotterel eggs were moved to the lawn site. The birds would have deposited the eggs there, DOC says. The only reason dotterel eggs are moved is when they are under immediate threat, and then only a short distance."

Excuse me?

I visited Warkworth's Department of Conservation office to find out. The staff told me that a lady reported the nest several times. To appease the lady, DOC fenced the area off.

I asked DOC staff whether they relocated the nest. The staff member, who just happened to be a 'frizzy-haired woman', said that no DOC staff sanctioned the moving of the nest.

DOC staff explained that dotterels cannot relocate their own eggs. If eggs are relocated, dotterels can abandon their eggs. Relocating nests required particular skills and DOC permission.


There wasn't a squeak out of Larry Phillips or the Kawau Bay Shorebirds Awareness Group once the new dog bylaws came into effect. (The Kawau Bay Wowsers Awareness Group ceased activity as well, for that matter.) The new bylaw didn't extend to the reserve in front of Larry's place, which was south of the boatramp. He reclused behind his mirrored conservatory glass. He erected a fence along his reserve boundary and installed various types of bird and dog scarers facing the beach.

Bryan Jackson also faded into obscurity. Mark Dinniss took over as chair of SBRRA.

In the 2016 local body elections, Greg Sayers was elected as a councillor. Beth Houlbrooke became chair of the Rodney Local Board.

In October 2017, Michele MacKenzie appeared on television defending the Norfolk pine. "That's the frizzy-haired lady!" said several people who walk daily along the esplanade. "She's the one who's been relocating eggs!"

Michele MacKenzie hadn't made a submission by July 2015 for the dog access review. She hadn't sought any protection of shorebirds prior to Duncan Morison falling out with the developer of the Boathouse bay site in December 2015. When television news cameras were pointed in her face in October 2017, she was ranting about how the whole of Snells Beach should be a wildlife reserve!

In September 2017 after the first attempt to fell the Norfolk pine, there were no fenced off dotterel nests nearby. When journalists arrived in early October, what appeared to be dotterel eggs appeared near the Norfolk pine's canopy. Temporary fences cordoned off the area. No dotterels, however, were seen trying to protect the eggs.

Worn down by Michele's rants about shorebirds, the journalists instead focused on the Norfolk pine for their articles.

With national and local media attention, Michele had a feather in her cap. The SBRRA noticed.

The council were due to replace the Exeloo public toilets at the southern end of Snells Beach and wanted a mural to adorn it. Although Godwits frequent the northern end of the beach, Michele MacKenzie proposed a photograph of Godwits for the toilets, which the SBRRA supported.

Something as simple as a mural for one wall on a toilet became an ordeal. Michele exhausted and frustrated a lot of people to the point that people just caved. The result was a mural where the description was littered with typos and grammatical errors. Even shorebirds was spelt two different ways:

Errors and corrections highlighted in red. (Click to enlarge)

Michele MacKenzie was establishing herself as a domineering and manipulative fanatic whose obsessive behaviour overwhelmed her lack of expertise or experience.

Two long years

Greg Sayers was wrong. It wouldn't be two years. It would take four years for the dog bylaws to be reviewed. In that time, the council was barraged by complaints about alleged breaches of the dog bylaw. None resulted in enforcement action.

These statistics don't lie. Between January 2015 and September 2020, the council received 113 complaints from only a handful of people complaining about non-observance of the bylaw north of the boatramp:

(Courtesy Auckland Council)

Complaints to the council weren't only about dogs. Michele MacKenzie complained to the council about cats and one particular development affecting shorebirds. What action did the council take?

Snells Beach is popular with kitesurfers:

Photograph of kitesurfing, taken from the northern end of Sunburst Avenue Reserve.

The only rules that apply to kitesurfers is this sign:

Photograph of sign at the top of the Sunburst Avenue Reserve boatramp.

So, the only risk that kitesurfers have is to other people in the water. Anything else?

In 2018, Okura Holdings Limited applied to Auckland Council to develop 130 hectares of coastal property north of Long Bay. According to evidence given by Auckland Council's Biodiversity expert Dr Tim Lovegrove and Forest & Bird's G Don:

[361] The expert witnesses agreed that growth in kite surfing had the potential to disturb bird-life as a result of the OHL development, as more people would be able to access the foreshore directly from the OHL land. Citing an evaluation of 17 studies from five countries, including New Zealand, Mr Don said that birds perceive kite surfers as large predators and avoid them by taking long flights or leaving a site altogether. In his view, unregulated kite-surfing had the potential to "significantly degrade the existing habitats of coastal birds as a result of continual disturbance" and that could increase as a result of the proposed development.

[362] Dr Lovegrove said that an increase in kite-surfing at the Karaka shell banks in the South Manukau harbour had been found to be disturbing migratory species such as godwits and preventing breeding of New Zealand dotterel for whom this was an important site.

Snells Beach is one of the most popular places to kitesurf in Auckland. Dr Tim Lovegrove has yet to raise in any document the risk that kitesurfing has to Snells Beach shorebirds.

The Boathouse Bay resource consent was processed at the same time as the Okura resource consent application. Council staff didn't raise any concerns regarding the effect that Boathouse Bay would have on protected wildlife.