The government has been warned that planning law changes may erode Auckland Council's already limited ability to control helicopter flights.
The council's planning committee this morning approved a staff investigation into whether choppers on Waiheke and Aotea Great Barrier Islands are complying with what few existing rules are in place on their consents.
It heard of gaps and lack of controls at both local and national level over where and how often helicopters can operate.
Waiheke's local board has called it a "wild west" and asked for island airspace to get special designation.
That call, as well as Waiheke and Aotea local boards' calls for a moratorium on any more resource consents being granted for helipads, or to require public notification of the applications, has been knocked back by the council - which says the law does not allow for these moves.
Waiheke has almost 50 helipads consented, and Aotea is dealing with several applications for the first time.
The constraints on what councils can do appear to becoming more severe.
Mayor Phil Goff told the committee that Minister of Environment David Parker had asked him about the implications of reforms to the Resource Management Act for helicopter controls.
"There's a real danger that the RMA reforms, wanting to lessen controls, could well mean that we [have] less ability to deal with the nuisance effects of helicopter overflying," Goff said he told Parker.
Already, the RMA only allowed the council to set rules around takeoffs and landings. Overflying came under Civil Aviation laws, which were limited in the main to airspace over airports, Goff said.
"What we've pointed out to the Minister is a legislative and jurisdictional gap between the RMA and the Civil Aviation Act, with neither having the scope to address the general nuisance from helicopter overflying."
Unfair to blame council planners - councillor
Some islanders have accused the council of being reluctant to take on Waiheke businesses benefiting from rich tourists being flown in, for example, for lunch.
But councillor Linda Cooper told the committee it was not fair to blame planners when existing rules meant they "can't deal with the noise in the sky".
Helicopter landings are a non-complying activity in most urban places in mainland Auckland, but the islands have looser categorisation which largely prevents public notification.
The committee heard that also means helipad applications on the islands are not assessed in light of how close they are to the nearest heliport. On Aotea, all five applications - one has been granted - are for pads within a few kilometres of the Claris airport heliport.
Aotea locals and iwi say the special sanctuary nature of their island is under threat.
A planner told councillors they may be able to introduce "interim protections" for iwi on Aotea, while the long, slow process of officially registering sites of cultural significance carries on. Eight hundred sites have been identified, but none have been protected by official scheduling so far.
The planners said they would report back on their helicopter investigation by the end of the year, and it might lead to district or unitary plan changes.
But repeatedly, the meeting heard this was not a priority, compared to the "enormous workload" required to address central government moves such as housing intensification.
Committee chair Chris Darby warned of this, before adding that regarding helicopters, "We will get to it."
Three years ago, Darby said something similar - that chopper rules were not as stringent as they should be and that the system should be changed, and he pointed towards a possible regime tightening in 2020.
That did not happen.
Recently, the council told the island local boards any chopper rule changes should wait till 2026, the new date for a review of the city's unitary plan.
Today's suggestion by a lead planner, Warren Maclennan, that there "may be a plan change" sooner, appears to be a shift in that position.
The planning report claimed there had been few complaints about helicopters, but opponents say this is not true; lobby group Quiet Sky Waiheke said records often were not kept or complainants were fobbed off to the Civil Aviation Authority - or fell into the legislative gap referred to by Mayor Goff.
Minister Parker wrote to Mayor Goff in April saying he welcome the council looking into the management considerations for helipads and helicopter movements and invited its views on how this fits with the RMA reforms.
"The noise from helicopters and land use effects will continue to be able to be regulated under the Natural and Built Environments Act, but if anything extra is needed we will consider it. The changes to amenity will not undermine this," Parker said today.