Stifling development?

While they stand to be accused of building their objections on foundations of self-interest, there is a great deal of sense - common and otherwise - in the case mounted by developers against the proposed new Dunedin City Council draft development contributions policy.

The council has argued it is looking for a fairer way to distribute costs of developments and is essentially looking to rebalance the ledger in favour of the general ratepayer and to the cost of the developer. Last Monday it completed a three-day hearing into what Mayor Dave Cull described as a "complex issue" and will reconvene to consider it on November 22.

Development contributions are fees levied on property developers to pay for infrastructure required by subdivisions, such as water and wastewater, roads and reserves. Under draft proposals, developments placing additional demand on infrastructure could attract extra charges. But such charges, it is argued, could suffocate development in Dunedin and stifle economic activity and growth.

During the hearings a number of developers, rightly, pointed out the dampened economic context in which the new proposals were being mooted; and the state of the city's development profile. At a time when all development and economic growth was fragile, any additional financial impost could halt it altogether.

Such contributions and levies were introduced by councils where significant growth imposed considerable additional infrastructure requirements on a city. Generally, this was not the case with Dunedin, the recent history of which was one of slow population and growth decline rather than accelerated expansion.

The city needed to work hard at reversing the trend and develop policies to support this, developers argued. In significantly reducing their profit margins, as the proposed charges inevitably would, the council was in fact doing the reverse.

It is understandable the council should look closely at where the greater part of the costs of subdivision and development fall. If the general ratepayer ends up subsidising a considerable proportion of such costs while the developer walks away with unreasonable profits, then the council should make appropriate adjustments. But at times of recent recession and stuttering growth, even a small extra levy might be too much for the building sector to absorb. Further, the council needs to look to its own systems and processes.

The cost to an individual property owner subdividing a single section has been cited as possibly as much as $20,000 in consent, administration and "development" fees. This seems ludicrous, and positively designed to suppress such activity.How are such amounts accounted for? Where does the money go? How, for even the smallest and most simple of "development" projects, can such an amount be justified?

The suspicion is, of course, such fees are supporting a burgeoning bureaucracy within the council. This may seem an unfair accusation, but the developers have a point. The council will have to be careful to consider its own costs and processes. It needs to be transparent about apportioning and recuperating development costs.

Striking the appropriate balance is not going to be easy and, whatever the final policy, not everyone will be pleased. But that should not stop the council from trying. In particular it needs to listen carefully to both developers and owners on the prohibitive costs they could face over works to their properties.

And another thing
All too often inspired science is a figment of the imagination of the producers of imported TV programmes. There are a plethora of them on our screens. So it is reassuring to learn of the forensic techniques of a group of University of Otago scientists who have so finessed their procedures as to be able to trace an errant fishing boat from the residue of paint flakes under a dead snapper's scales.

It is not quite CSI Dunedin, but this group of forensic chemists has produced evidence to help convict a fisherman of dumping dead snapper at sea off the North Island. The quota system and rules around it which could be said to encourage such an outcome may be at fault, but our Otago University super sleuths have made sure those who abuse the law will in future be less likely to get away with it.


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