Takapuna Milford walkway dangles

By Andre Hueber

Plans for an $8.85 million Takapuna to Milford walkway appear to have reached an impasse after what a crucial property owner indicates is a breakdown of negotiations between him and Auckland Council.

The current ad hoc walkway crosses a number of private properties and, in parts, it's impossible not to get wet. A bold and stunning-looking walkway is proposed - but the council has to work through its plans with dozens of property owners who will be affected.

Thorne Bay resident Paul Firth's property is key to the development of a formal walkway and is affected more than most. Plans show land on his property needs to be acquired for the walkway to proceed - but he says the council stopped speaking to him six months ago.

Mr Firth, 67, says he entered negotiations in goodwill but has beendisappointed with the way he says he's been treated by the council and now refuses to sell anything until he's listened to.

His family has allowed public access along the front of their land at Black Rock since the 1940s. The cottage on the site, built in 1929, is one of the older structures on the North Shore's coast. The property's unique position on the side of a steep rock formation allows people taking the popular coastal walk to get through without having to swim.

The former North Shore City Council built a wooden bridge at the edge of Mr Firth's land in 1983 but it became damaged and unsafe. A storm in January 2011 destroyed it beyond repair. Since then, Mr Firth has let people walk through his garden, and says up to 1000 people a day pass through on public holidays.

The new council's plans for an improved walkway show the front 3m of Mr Firth's property is to be "acquired", the bridge rebuilt and a viewing platform installed.

But Mr Firth told the council he didn't want a viewing platform built beside his property and has concerns about the replacement bridge.

"The initial designs weren't in keeping with the nature of the foreshore," he says. "The bridge would've been too wide - it would have meant damaging rocks or trees. I told them I wanted a structure varying in height and width with a passing bay. I haven't heard anything, but I trust they've come up with a better plan."

Council designs required some trees to be removed, but Mr Firth told the council he wanted them kept because he planted them when he was a schoolboy. He says he asked for a metal handrail in the shape of a wave, broken tiles and shells within the bridge surface, and a sculpture of a penguin to symbolise the penguins that live under his house. "They said they weren't up to that yet, but that was six months ago. It's getting to the point of rudeness."

He says recent upgrades to reserves in the immediate area were an ominous sign of what could happen in front of his home. "Ninety per cent of plants at the end of Ocean View Rd are foreign - it's dreadful. A seat is made of hardwood from endangered forests, but I want New Zealand trees.

"That's partly why I'm reluctant to sell. They'd have cactuses and yuccas, concrete and the most dreadful looking bridge - nothing with artistic flair."

He is waiting to hear about hissuggestion for an information sign about the geological landscape, created by the explosion of a volcano 100,000 years ago.

"Lots of schoolchildren come around here. It'd be nice to have a sign showing how old the rocks are and where they came from. It could also say 'this is the Firths' property', so they respect it a bit."

Mr Firth says he doesn't necessarily want money, but would like a reduction in his $11,000 a year rates and a relaxing of foreshore rules.

"I asked them if I'd be allowed to build three or four metres closer to the shore so I could get more afternoon sun. It was blocked when they gave permission for the house next door to be built but they don't want to know anything about it."

He is still willing to support the council but says: "I'd like things to be more in my favour than they have been in the past. The goodwill between myself and the public already exists - they must recognise that."

Devonport-Takapuna Local Board natural environment spokesperson Jan O'Connor says Mr Firth has been more than generous allowing people to walk on his land - theoretically he could put up fences and stop people from passing.

"It's his private property and he's got every right to be heard. If he wants public art in the form of a bridge, good on him."

conversationPaul Firth at the broken walkway bridge below his property.

She says if nobody from the council has been in touch for six months, the project is obviously at a crossroads, despite pressure from the public to open up the walkway.

Ms O'Connor says $334,866 was set aside for the walkway in 2013 and $622,131 in 2014. She hopes that includes the costs of acquisitions and easements of the (approximately) 28 properties the walkway will cross. A 2011 feasibility study showed 46 properties extend over the walkway, with the boundaries for many properties stretching out to sea.

"They need to sort out easements and acquisitions before they go any further because the issue of walking over private property needs to be addressed," she says. "With change of ownership there'll be problems in future - new owners might decide they don't want people walking over their land."

She says the original bridge was built under a "gentleman's agreement" when only locals used the walkway. These days the walkway is recognised regionally and even pushed as a visitor attraction.

Squire Speedy, 87, is a retired JP, local historian and author of Land Compensation. He told The Aucklander the informal use of the foreshore goes back to the very early days of settlement. "My great-grandfather Allan O'Neill Snr surveyed the area in 1843, while my grandfather Allan O'Neill Jnr purchased land with riparian rights in 1901. It has been a local tradition for property owners to keep the walkway open, but legal problems come when council wants to spend public money on what is private land.

"Naturally, foreshore owners will be upset if council wants to compulsorily acquire land that will destroy their property rights. I suggest that it would be sufficient for owners to grant a right of way by a suitable easement.

"That would preserve their property rights and allow council to carry out work at minimum cost. Some owners might even be public spirited enough to cooperate without compensation as they have done in the past."

But he said some of the properties, including that of Mr Firth, have special issues that council should address sympathetically.

He said the former North Shore council produced a walkway proposal costing $8,850,641 but no provision was made for land compensation.

"The scheme addressed the most difficult areas, for a new bridge at Firth's and new pathways or boardwalks, but failed to address the legal issues.

"If owners are granted a right of way, this would preserve owners' rights and also reduce the emotional upset that legally taking land will generate... The area of the land is terribly important from a compensation point of view."

Devonport-Takapuna Local Board parks spokesman Mike Cohen says Mr Firth is "community-minded" and he plans to meet him to get a feel for what is going on. "It's important we get everyone singing from the same song sheet."

Mr Cohen denied the walkway was delayed, but admits there is concern the bridge had not yet been replaced. "We would like to reassure people that this important part of the walkway has certainly not been forgotten."

Council is looking at bridge replacement and further consultation is required. The walkway is a 10-year project. "Integral to this work is access to the replacement structure and, like on other stretches, special consideration must be made to where the track crosses privately owned land. We have to work with landowners to address their concerns. It's part of the process to ensure we have a fantastic facility we can all enjoy and those directly impacted don't feel like they've lost."

He says ongoing discussions would include consideration of easements, but were sensitive and confidential. "If a problem crops up, we need to address it urgently. I'm confident we can move the project on."

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- The Aucklander

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