$40k effort to protect town’s rural character

Some Arrowtown residents are concerned about the incremental housing development spilling on to...
Some Arrowtown residents are concerned about the incremental housing development spilling on to semi-rural land (top right) outside the township’s urban growth boundary. PHOTO: ODT FILES
A crusader for Arrowtown’s green belt may have lost two legal bids to keep land rurally zoned, but believes his efforts — and the $40,000 it cost him — have not been wasted.

Dunedin environmental engineer Dave Hanan went to the Environment Court twice last year to oppose rezoning appeals by landowners wanting to subdivide for housing.

The three sites in question sit on the western side of McDonnell Rd, which doubles as part of the urban growth boundary (UGB) created by the Queenstown Lakes District Council 13 years ago to stop housing spilling into the semi-rural land surrounding the historic township.

One year later, with the court having released its decisions, Mr Hanan can reflect on whether it was worth it.

With the backing of a group of residents, he spent hundreds of hours preparing for the hearings, and engaged lawyers and experts.

Of the $80,000 in legal and other bills the campaign cost, half came out of his own pocket and the rest was paid for by a crowdfunding campaign.

In court, Mr Hanan argued the land outside the UGB had reached a "tipping point".

The proposed rezonings would enable "incremental development, which bit by bit is eroding the very rural character of the  land".

Submissions in support by residents had common themes — concern at the loss of the land’s pastoral character, and frustration at the council’s "capitulation" to developers through the proposed district plan (PDP) process.

The first decision, concerning a six-hectare block at the township’s western entrance, was a loss, Mr Hanan said.

The second, concerning 6ha and 8ha sites further along the road, was a "semi-victory", upholding a zoning likely to restrict development on the former site from 14 new houses to five.

"Overall, I think the environment had a loss, but it was not as bad as it could’ve been," he said.

For him the biggest win had been raising awareness among the township’s residents about what was at stake if they did not get involved in "boring" planning issues.

Mr Hanan, whose family has owned an historic cottage on McDonnell Rd for 60 years, said one of the reasons Arrowtown had been voted the country’s most beautiful small town was because it was surrounded by a "green enclave" of predominantly rural land.

It was part of what made the historic township unique and special, and the community had a responsibility to protect it.

Mr Hanan rejects the "nimby" label — he was as concerned by the Wakatipu’s housing crisis as anyone — but the "massive homes on large chunks of land" that would eventually be built on the three sites would do nothing to address the issue, he said.

The answer was high-density housing in appropriate locations, such as the Te Pā Tāhuna apartment complex being built on Gorge Rd.

"I'm not anti-development at all — I'm anti-development in areas that are highly sensitive to their impact."

At the heart of the problem was the Resource Management Act (RMA) and the process for developing district plans — every district’s 10-year rule book for controlling and managing development.

Once a PDP had passed the public consultation stage, the key decisions on its way to becoming operative were made by planning commissioners and judges, he said.

The vast majority of residents became bystanders as "vested interests with deep pockets" challenged the PDP to seek outcomes often completely at odds with what the community wanted.

He had been able to participate in the two appeal hearings only because his mother, Dame Elizabeth Hanan, had written a brief submission on the PDP in 2015, giving the family "interested party" rights to any appeals concerning the land.

Challenging those outcomes was time-consuming, complex and expensive, and well beyond the means of most people.

With the previous government’s legislation to replace the RMA set to be repealed by the end of the year, what to replace it with was the "$64 million question", Mr Hanan said.

"Under the RMA, we’ve had a degradation in just about all the environmental indicators we monitor, so it obviously hasn't worked for the environment, and yet developers are being held up getting developments done that are quite appropriate.

"I don't know what the answer is, but I think there is a conversation to be had to try to figure that out.

"We've got to do better."

Guy Williams, PIJF Court reporter