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Negotiations over the future of Dunedin landmark Saddle Hill appear to be coming to a head, as David Loughrey explains.
New photos of the Saddle Hill quarry at the centre of the controversy show its owners have so far stuck to a promise not to further cut into the hill's profile.
Despite concerns raised last week by opponents of mining on the hill, aerial photographs taken by the Otago Daily Times this week show no quarrying appears to have taken place on the upper slopes covered by a landscape conservation zoning, in the last 15 months.
Quarry owner Calvin Fisher's representative, Kim Taylor, last week refused permission to take photographs on the land, and would not give details of the operation.
Instead, the ODT took pictures from a helicopter, and compared them with similar pictures taken in August last year.
They show changes to what look like access ways near the top of the quarry, but Cr Colin Weatherall, who is heading the Environment Court mediation process for the council, said there were good reasons for that.
Because of the quarry's location on the prominent landmark, quarrying has attracted attention since the removal of material began in the 1950s.
Saddle Hill was named by Captain James Cook on his 1769 voyage to the Pacific.
Council staff began investigating quarrying activities on the hill last year, and Mr Fisher was asked by the council to provide evidence to support his belief he could continue quarrying in the protected landscape conservation area.
In August this year, the council said it had reached an agreement with Mr Fisher over what quarrying would take place while mediation was under way.
Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull said this week an announcement on the long-running issue was expected in the next few days.
Recent concerns from nearby residents have included the appearance of a machine that was bigger than the usual machines at the quarry, and an apparent increase in material leaving the site.
While he could talk little about the mediation process under court rules, Cr Weatherall this week commented on the photographs from his knowledge of the operation.
He said the landscape conservation area covered only the upper area of the quarry.
After the Pike River mine disaster last year, inspections had occurred at the quarry, which resulted in the owners being required to "bench" or build what appeared to be roads near the top of the hill.
Cr Weatherall said that was to make sure rubble near the top could not collapse and fall on workers below.
The large bulldozer that residents were concerned about, (which can be seen at the bottom right of the most recent photo) was used for that work.
Cr Weatherall also said quarry owners were "maximising" what they took.
In the past the clay and stones had been separated, and the stones removed and sold.
Now, all the material could be sold and used, which was why more material was coming from the quarry.
"It looks to me, other than the safety adjustments that we know about, there have been no physical adjustments to the hill," Cr Weatherall said.
That was what had been agreed to, until the mediation process was finished.
Saddle Hill Landscape Conservation Area (from Dunedin City Council district plan)*
- Includes the higher slopes of Saddle Hill.
Features and characteristics to be conserved
• The visual dominance of natural landform and other natural elements (such as remaining indigenous vegetation) over cultural or human-made landscape elements.
• The extent, integrity, coherence and natural character of the major natural elements such as landform, streams and areas of indigenous vegetation.
• The extent and quality of views from the principal public routes and viewpoints.
• The skyline generally defined by natural elements.
Principal threats to visual quality
• Excavation and quarrying: Removal of significant landform features by excavation and quarrying.
Other threats to visual quality
• Roads and tracks: Inappropriate siting, scale and design of roads and tracks such that they cut across the landform rather than follow it and become visually dominant features.
Quarries and other excavations:
• Inappropriate siting and scale of quarries and other excavations such that they become visually dominant focal points.