On Thursday Auckland Council's Planning Committee considered a private plan change covering 34.5ha of land in Patumahoe.
The land is currently zoned for rural production and is prime horticultural land. Developer Askew Consultants is seeking to rezone it for residential, light industry and future urban use. But there is already development taking place on the outskirts of the town and widespread redevelopment planned in nearby Drury, Opāheke, Pukekohe and Paerata.
Patumahoe is part of what's known as the Pukekohe Hub, 4359 hectares of some of New Zealand's most fertile and productive land. According to Auckland Council's Climate Action Framework released last year it generates $327 million a year, which is the equivalent of 26 percent of NZ's total domestic value of vegetable production.
But areas like Patumahoe are under increasing pressure from urban sprawl.
The framework said: "From 2002 to 2016, vegetable-growing land across the country was reduced by 30 percent. Land like the hub faces increasing threats like urban sprawl. The future of the hub is important for Auckland. With a forgiving and temperate climate and proximity to essential transport routes, the hub is well-positioned to supply year-round vegetables to help feed Auckland's growing demand for fresh food."
Councillor Chris Darby, who chairs the council's Planning Committee, put forward a motion at Thursday's meeting to reject the private plan change outright, but he lost the ensuing vote.
Many of the councillors stated their opposition to the plan change, but said they would follow the advice of council officers and accept the private plan change application and use the independent hearings to oppose it. But despite losing the vote Darby was unrepentant.
"We're not here to rubber stamp the advice of council officials. I respect our officials and their advice, but I was attempting to draw a line," Darby said.
"If we had come together and rejected it and maybe the applicant had gone to court to overturn it, it would have given us an opportunity for the council to take a case and fight it and establish new case law.
"I think it was an opportunity lost. These prime and elite soils, once they are gone they are gone forever."
Mayor Phil Goff agreed it was important to protect the area from urban sprawl, but stated his reason for not backing Darby's call to reject the private plan change during the meeting.
"The advice is there are good grounds to oppose this, but the place to do that is in front of the hearings panel," he said. "That doesn't stop us putting in the strongest submission we can and that's the process we should follow."
Darby said the government's planned National Policy Statement for Highly Productive Land, which is currently in the works, was needed now.
He said areas with highly productive land and elite soils like the Pukekohe hub needed to be protected.
"It's an important food bowl for Auckland today and for decades to come," he said. "David Parker hasn't released the national policy statement, but I think that work is really important. As soon as that comes into effect it will have statutory weight."
A local Patumahoe resident, who didn't want to be named, said he was concerned about the growing development in the area.
"If you go down to Pukekohe itself they are subdividing prime soil land," he said. "This area is great, but they will destroy it if they do that."
Fellow Patumahoe resident and local business owner Sam Good was also concerned about the growth in the area.
"I've lived here most of my life," he said. "There's already so much development going on around here, but we've got to grow our food somewhere."
Darby said the next step was for the private plan change to go out for public consultation before a series of independent hearings.
Environment Minister David Parker said the proposed National Policy Statement for Highly Productive Land would go to Cabinet for approval next year and if it was approved it was expected to take effect in the first half of 2021.
He said it was designed to improve the way highly productive land was managed under the Resource Management Act.
"This aims to manage and protect New Zealand's remaining highly productive land, and provide clear and consistent guidance for councils about what they must do to achieve that," Parker said.
He said under the proposed national policy statement councils would be required to ensure there was enough highly productive land available for primary production now and in the future, and protect it from inappropriate subdivision, use and development.
Askew Consultants director Gayle Askew was contacted for this story.
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