Monday, March 20, 2006

Raewyn Apart: Strong hand needed to preserve paradise

The controversy over Conservation Minister Chris Carter's Whangamata marina decision provides much food for thought. It is unfortunate that the marina proposers allegedly spent over $1 million. However, they have been well aware that the minister had the final decision.

The minister, on behalf of the public, represents the owner of the "land" in the marine area which the proponents sought to develop. It would be remarkable if a developer spent as much time and money seeking consent to develop privately owned land without first obtaining some measure of agreement from the landowner.

The minister's role is important. He provides a final check on major projects which will cause significant and irreversible impacts on the coastal marine area. This is critical because contrary to popular belief, the Environment Court does not always get it right. Issues can be finely balanced and contested between expert witnesses. And the Court can be inconsistent. But more importantly, the Whangamata marina controversy highlights the low-level ongoing war being fought over New Zealand's coast. The conflict is escalating as our population grows and more people are seeking their place in the surf and sun. The eventual outcome will determine in whose interests the coast is managed and developed.

Skirmishes are erupting around the country. Late last year local protesters at Cable Bay in the Far North occupied a development site and threatened to lie down in front of a digger to stop the construction of a footbridge leading from a luxury condominium complex to the beach. They had not had the opportunity to express their concerns through the formal processes, as consent to the proposal had been granted without public notification.

Further south at Blue Bay on the Mahia Peninsula, local protesters occupied the old camping ground which is proposed to be subdivided into 44 sections. They were lamenting the loss of family camping opportunities and were calling for the camping ground to be re-established.

Over the past few weeks the media has been reporting the battle over the proposed development of Ocean Beach in Hawkes Bay. This would see 540 homes being built in a beach settlement presently comprising 32 baches. Here the council has revealed that a "behind closed doors" deal had been reached with the developer, before any plan change required to open the area to development, had been publicly considered.

There are many David and Goliath examples where small groups of concerned locals are taking on the might of developers to preserve their piece of paradise.

Some argue that local protesters are just trying to pull up the drawbridge and keep others out of their piece of coastline. They contend that there is plenty of undeveloped coast left and no need for concern.

It is true that if you travel to remote areas you will still find areas of beautiful, undeveloped coastline. But how many undeveloped, high-quality beaches can you find within two hour's drive of Auckland, to provide much needed respite for 1.2 million people?

And how much coastal land has already been subdivided and not yet built on, so the impacts of inevitable development are not yet visible? Along the stunning Whangarei district coastline for instance, 1500 lots had yet to be built on in 1992. This land bank was thought to be sufficient to meet projected housing demands for the next 20 years. What will the coastline look like when all these houses are built, let alone those on any subsequent subdivisions?

A laissez-faire approach to coastal development means that few benefit - the developer and subsequent property owners - while the wider public pays the cost through the loss of treasured wild coastal places. If we are all to benefit from coastal development, we need wise and strong management of the coast in the public interest.

Reflecting on the past can provide important lessons to inform decisions on the future. In late 1960s and early 70s there was a groundswell of concern about coastal subdivision. Morton, Thom and Locker published their seminal work Seacoast in the Seventies. The Ministry of Works undertook in-depth studies of coastal subdivision and developed recommendations for action. Numerous conferences were held to debate the issues. Even the Auckland District Law Society issued a public statement expressing grave concern over the lack of control on coastal subdivision.

Proposals put forward at the time included a short-term moratorium on coastal development, the establishment of a Coastal Commission and the creation of a Coastal National Park of New Zealand.

But the Government failed to take decisive action and the initiative was overtaken in the institutional and policy reforms of the 1980s. The Resource Management Act resulted in controls on coastal subdivision being loosened rather than tightened. And as a result the problem has become worse.

What is required is a more strategic and less ad hoc approach to managing the coast. We need to identify areas where the natural values are such that development should be very limited. We should preserve our pristine areas. At the same time we should identify those areas where some careful and well-designed intensification is appropriate and direct development there.

At present, it is a free-for-all. Part of the reason why the Whangamata decision attracted so much attention was that saying no is contrary to the trend in which approvals are routine.

It's time the Government faced up to the challenge of managing coastal development.

The minister's announcement that a Board of Inquiry will be established to examine coastal development issues is a positive beginning. Let's hope it reaches a fruitful conclusion this time.
* Raewyn Apart is a senior policy analyst with the Environmental Defence Society.

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