Aotea / Great Barrier Island iwi opposes plans for helipads

8:47 am on 24 February 2022

Māori on Aotea / Great Barrier Island have told Auckland Council to stop helipads being put in, and to start paying them more heed as kaitiaki.

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Five applicants in five months have applied to put helipads on Aotea / Great Barrier Island. File image Photo:

But the council said it would be illegal to suspend consents, and that the complete absence in official plans of sites of significance to mana whenua on the island shuts the hapū out of the loop.

A heart surgeon, a hamburger mogul, and a leading landscaper are among the five applicants in five months who have surprised locals by applying to put helipads on the isolated island. RNZ has calls in to several applicants.

Local Charles Nepia said iwi opposition had nothing to do with nimbyism, but was about taking care of the island's way of life and of the land - such as a significant urupā close to Greenside Road, the would-be site of four helipads.

"They sit within some very special places, in the shadow of former pā sites, and in other areas that just have old significance to us and the connections with other iwi," said Nepia, the kaiwhakahaere of Ngāti Rehua Ngātiwai ki Aotea Trust Board.

"Why can't they just take our word that, hey, those sites are important?"

Nepia emailed the council on Monday asking it to suspend all helipad applications until a strategy for approving and managing helipads is agreed.

Other islanders are preparing a petition calling for a moratorium.

"It wouldn't be legal to do a moratorium," said the council's general manager of resource consents, Ian Smallburn.

Although the island is rich in pre-1900 Māori archaeological sites, none of them are officially registered in either the Hauraki Gulf Islands section of the district plan or Auckland Unitary plan.

"So in these circumstances, we wouldn't be looking to get feedback from mana whenua," Smallburn said.

The threshold for such feedback is not triggered by consent applications for "controlled" or "restricted discretionary" activities, which covers helipads.

By contrast, a council report last September said iwi could "raise any cultural concerns" about consent applications.

Charles Nepia told RNZ the hapū recognised the council was following its own planning rules - but this just showed the rules were "not fit for purpose".

He wrote to the council on Monday: "As a hapū we have been concerned as to the pattern that is being established and we also note that past experience with some of these same properties have been fraught with ongoing concerns relating to recognition and protection of waahi tapu and our taonga even when stipulated compliance was a requirement of the consent(s).

"This previous experience has left us with underlying concerns that there does not seem to be sufficient attention paid to our mandate as Kaitiaki to protect these sacred sites and there are obviously gaps..."

The council will get a new report on helipads next month, but all indications are that changing the planning rules is not a priority.

Local archaeologist Don Prince, who has excavated at the urupā east of Medlands Beach, told the council in a presentation last June, it was ignoring the development threats.

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Aotea / Great Barrier Island. (File image) Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Though helipads do not typically involve earthworks, the issue still showed that "nothing has changed", Prince said.

"It's a continuing loss of New Zealand's heritage."

The council should notify Heritage New Zealand about any helipad applications that may impinge on archaeological sites, Prince said. However, the council said this was up to the applicant to do.

The council's 'Accidental Discovery Rule' covers the islands. It provides for a stopwork under any consent if unknown archaeological, cultural and natural values are discovered.

Work is carrying on between Māori and the council on recognising up to 500 culturally significant sites across Auckland region. But this is going slowly, the focus is on Department of Conservation land and it will not be in time to affect the Aotea helipad applications or others on Waiheke island.

Some Waiheke locals are also agitating against applications to add four more helipads there.

Major commercial operator Helicopter Me said the opposition was misplaced.

"Helicopters have been landing at those properties for many years," said its safety manager, Stuart Poppelwell.

"Now, the landowners are saying, 'Oh, we need to actually make sure we've got this documented and the right processes in place so that the helicopters can fly in and out the right way, without annoying everybody'.

"All they're trying to do is comply ... they're not increasing the number of helicopter movements there at all."

Most of the pads were used only a few times a year by landowners, while commercial operators who flew in more regularly strictly followed the conditions set by council around flight frequency, safety and noise, he said.

"Overall, I don't see how it impinges anymore than a neighbour mowing their lawns once a week."

No complaints or problems had been raised with them, he said.

The council's Ian Smallburn said that planners had the power to reject helipad applications, within narrow constraints - though a 2019 council planning paper said in practice most applications were approved just as the landowner wanted them, and only taking into account noise and not the wider impacts.

"We're very aware of the locals' concerns about helicopters," Smallburn said.

"However, we do have to consider the planning rules ... and we have to stick to them and work within the law."