The Resource Management Act is getting another facelift this year, but will it be in time to give Auckland’s kauri a fighting chance?
Watercare recently lodged a resource management application in order to begin construction of a replacement water treatment plant in the heart of Titirangi, adding to the powderkeg of tension between locals and Council over the protection of kauri trees.
Supplying around 20% of Auckland’s water, the new plant will offer more advanced treatment processes and which Watercare says will be “easier to operate and maintain than the current plant”.
The development has faced opposition from the start as construction on the site will remove nearly four hectares of surrounding forest, which two separate ecological reports identified as being mostly comprised of critical, vulnerable, and declining tree species – including mature kauri trees.
Auckland Council has been fighting an uphill battle against kauri dieback in the Waitākere Ranges, closing popular walking tracks along with an ongoing rāhui in an effort to halt the spread of dieback.
Heading opposition to the plant is the Titirangi Protection Group (TPG). Spokesperson Belynda Groot says “the project clearly falls foul of many of the rules of the Resource Management Act and its Auckland equivalent, the Unitary Plan”.
“In that sense, it is useful because it provides a legal framework through which Watercare’s plans should be rejected. But these Acts also contain some grey areas which Watercare will seem to exploit.”
Ecologists from the TPG say the sites are part of an irreplaceable ecological corridor and say they warn construction could result in rare and endangered trees and animals “suffering significant degradation and permanent loss.”
Watercare project manager Paul Jones announced in a newsletter that Watercare will upgrade a local intersection, refurbish the derelict Nihotupu Filter Station, and establish a charitable public trust to provide funding to Waitakere environmental groups as part of an environmental compensation package.
Intended to “promote sustainable management of New Zealand’s natural and physical resources” through regulation of air, soil, and water use, removal, and supply, the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) has been modified and tweaked almost yearly over its lifespan.
Through the current process, a resource consent application is checked for completion, environmental impacts are considered, and it’s decided if the public should be notified. If publicly notified, submissions may be made by anyone during a hearing held before independent commissioners and/or councillors. After a decision is made, it can be appealed to the Environment Court.
However, of the nearly 42,000 resource consent applications made in 2017 to 2018, a staggering 99.7% were granted, mostly for land use purposes.
The TPG also say they’re concerned about the independence of the consent process. “The choice of independent commissioners to oversee the process will be signed off by the Regulatory Committee, which is chaired by [Auckland Councillor] Linda Cooper who actively campaigned to have the plant put in Titirangi,” says Groot.
“How can anyone have the slightest confidence in the independence of such a process?”
Cooper says that the regulatory committee does not appoint commissioners, but rather senior planning staff do.
Cooper also denies she actively campaigned for the plant, saying she responded to calls from Oratia residents to move it elsewhere after it was revealed around 12 homes and businesses would be in the way.
“The decision was ultimately made by Watercare. The community didn’t want it in Oratia, and all we did was listen to our community – we talked to the [Watercare] board and said ‘we hope you’re listening’.”
The Ministry for the Environment’s RMA reform impact summary report highlights two key issues with the consent process: confusing and complex tools and processes, and limited space for public input.
The Ministry also notes that non-notification for resource consent applications is high, with more than 95 per cent of applications since 1999 not being publicly notified.
The report also notes that “notification decisions are a critical part of the resource consent process as they determine who can make a submission on an activity, and/or appeal the decisions to the Environment Court.”
Since stakeholders only have 20 days to submit against a resource application, the importance of public notification is undeniable in stakeholders drumming up support against applications.
This isn’t the first time that the RMA has caused headaches for ecologists and activists. Also in Titirangi stands Awhiawhi, a towering kauri tree estimated to be up to 500 years old. It’s been the subject of a long legal battle between locals and the landowners who initially wanted it cut down.
Save Our Kauri Trust Trustee Winnie Charlesworth took the fight for the kauri all the way to the High Court, the only way to have a resource consent decision Judicially Reviewed. The developers surrendered their resource consents during court action, and permanent protection was then sought from the Environment Court. It was denied and the kauri is currently unprotected.
“It’s a very limited legal procedure and the only way to see if the council has followed the process. It’s a poor way to keep them to account.” She says. “The system is failing the environment, and they’re saying there’s nothing wrong with the system.
“The lack of notification is a lack of democratic input; Neighbours, communities, nobody can have a say.”
Under the RMA, authorities must monitor condition compliance and environmental impacts of the consent application. But according to the MFE, only 74% of resource consents that required monitoring were in fact monitored, and 88% of those actually monitored were compliant.
In an email to Council about Awhiawhi, Tree Council Secretary Dr Mels Barton raised concerns about the importance of monitoring.
“The landowner has a Certificate of Compliance that says he can remove [Awhiawhi], but that doesn’t specify a methodology. The whole area is riddled with kauri dieback so enormous care will be needed by the contracting arborists.”
“If they had Council breathing down their necks [about] the methodology it would give the community a great deal of comfort that the situation is not going to be made even worse.”
The second phase of new RMA reforms are already well underway, involving a “comprehensive review of the resource management system” which will provide a chance to make changes.
Both Cooper and councillor Penny Hulse say they would like to see blanket tree protections in the RMA, which were removed years ago and never reimplemented in the 2008 Auckland Unitary Plan.
The councillors are frustrated at accusations they “hate the trees” and say they’re working on improving tree protections. “There is no magic solution, we’re putting our energy into better tree protection across the entire Auckland region,” says Hulse.