Monday, May 01, 2006

Brian Rudman: Don't change zoning so foreign sugar barons can grow rich

If there is one lesson to emerge from the Long Bay debacle it's the importance of forward thinking - by the general public as well as by public authorities.

If only we'd all clamoured for the purchase of the land behind Long Bay for a great new regional park 20 or 30 years ago, before population creep priced the land out of public reach.

It's fortuitous timing, then, that the latest skirmish in the Long Bay battle coincides with the closing, this Friday, of the public-submission phase of the plan-change proposal for the Chelsea Estate in Birkenhead.

The owner, New Zealand Sugar Company, seeks the change to ensure that if sugar refining ends on the site, "an appropriate form of development is potentially viable ..."

By that it means having the zoning to add up to 528 residential units, up to four storeys high, to the protected industrial buildings already occupying a 15ha prime waterfront portion of the estate.

In a statement in March when announcing the plan change application, sugar company general manager Bernard Duignan said it "recognises the significance of the site to the Auckland public and wants to ensure that the amenity and ecological attributes of the land and the heritage value of the buildings will be preserved for lifetimes to come".

Rather contradictorily, he added that "if refinery operations were to be relocated at a future date, Chelsea Estate's owners wish to secure the value of the site ..."

And there, in a nutshell, is the issue. Chelsea Sugar wants to ensure, after more than 100 years in this prime location, that if its Australian masters suddenly decide it's cheaper to produce sugar in Fiji or Queensland, they can maximise their returns on departing this commercially zoned property. Against that is the public-interest wish to incorporate this wonderful 52ha headland into a magnificent inner-Auckland regional park joining together four contiguous areas of coastal forest: Chelsea Estate, Kauri Pt Centennial Park, Kauri Pt Domain and the large Defence Force munitions dump.

Just before Christmas, Chelsea announced plans to sell the 36.7ha of parkland and lakes that surround the refinery to the Chelsea Park Trust for $20 million. The trust, headed by retired High Court judge Sir David Tompkins, now has to raise the funds.

The plan change now being sought involves the factory and adjacent land, including the "horse paddock", which occupies the most valuable coastal land jutting into the harbour across from Herne Bay.

The main factory building, built in 1884, and adjacent manager's house and workers cottages are listed by the Historic Places Trust and are presumably safe whatever happens.

The landscaped gardens, with their mature exotic trees, and lakes are part of the land under sale agreement to the trust and also seem future-proofed, as long as Sir David and his colleagues manage to raise the asking price.

But what every Aucklander should be concerned about is the 15ha that the owners want to upgrade into intensive residential land use.

If the North Shore City Council agrees to this plan change, it will potentially be pricing itself and future generations of Aucklanders out of ever realising the Uruamo headland regional park dream.

The land's existing business 9 zoning is for historic reasons. Now the owners want to tag it for future high-density residential use as well - obviously because that will be the most lucrative future usage. But if it's to be rezoned residential then a more appropriate guideline is - as the Chelsea Regional Park Association suggests - the residential 2A bush areas zoning, which is the classification of the neighbouring parkland on offer to the Chelsea Park Trust. This allows one dwelling per 820sq m and protects the bushland.

Such a zoning would be appropriate for the area. It would also keep the land price at a level the public purse could afford if it came on the market.

The good thing about this exercise is that ratepayers don't have to rush to their piggybanks just yet. But the outcome of the application will determine the price future generations will face when the land does come on the market - either through compulsory acquisition or voluntary sale. The Long Bay battle highlights the pitfalls of not thinking ahead.

Public submissions close with the North Shore City Council on Friday. Details and forms for submissions are at


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