Greg Smith takes in a dramatic view of Mangere Mountain, and wonders if the council's development plans could hide it forever. Volcanoes give Auckland its special character, he says, and "unless they're kept visible, the city is nothing".
When you drive over the harbour bridge and see Mt Eden or gaze upon One Tree Hill from Tip-Top corner on the Southern Motorway, you benefit from special planning rules that protect your view.
The airspace around our mountains is known as volcanic viewshafts. Eighty seven have been listed since public outrage in the mid-1970s forced the former regional authority to act. The height of buildings and trees around volcanic cones was limited and those sightlines are recognised in the current Auckland Plan.
A separate law, passed in 1915, prevents building on, or carving bits off, most of the volcanoes. Mr Smith's Auckland Volcanic Cone Protection Society unearthed this long-forgotten Act to protect against the builders of SH20 bulldozing and concreting Mt Roskill's flanks.
Now he worries the list of "protected view shafts" - the lines of sight from points around Auckland to the volcanoes - may be ignored to make way for the intensive housing and construction the city council plans.
"This has the potential to be one of the biggest issues in Auckland because protection of view shafts is perceived to be constraining development and holding the city back," says Mr Smith.
He points out the view shafts don't limit development around the full 360 degrees of a mountain. It's just a section of view that is protected - think of it as a triangular slice from a round pie.
"But if you keep chewing at the sample you're doomed. If you start chopping and changing, there's no end."
Alterations to the rules, known as Change 8, were started by the former Auckland Regional Council and the previous councils in 2005. The aim was to add, amend and delete viewshafts - 35 were added and seven deleted.
New and revised view shafts include areas where intensive building was predicted - such as Newmarket and Panmure town centres - or those due for major works, such as the Auckland Manukau Eastern Transport Initiative (Ameti) and Tamaki Transformation projects.
Some view shafts were no longer considered valid because plants had grown over them or because former councils and government agencies had made mistakes, allowing them to be built over.
The changes were included in the Auckland Regional Policy Statement and became operative at a regional level in March this year - though still need to be added to district plans.
The merged council is required to align district plans with the statement under the Resource Management Act. Its Planning and Urban Design Forum voted on May 29 to initiate a district plan change, depending on money.
Local Boards and iwi would have a say before the Regional Development and Operations Committee makes a decision in August. It could decide to wait for the 30-year strategy called the Unitary Plan.
Mr Smith is concerned about what that may mean.
"Change 8 removed some view shafts but, on the other hand, if it isn't implemented in district plans now, the whole idea could be discussed as part of the Unitary Plan. That would take longer and be an opportunity for developers to argue."
When amendments were originally discussed, the society opposed any view shafts being deleted.
"Views to Browns Island and Rangitoto were added, but important views within the isthmus have been deleted. It's unlikely views from Tamaki Drive would be obstructed - it wasn't a fair trade."
The Unitary Plan would likely be driven by the council's advocacy for intensive development and the need to support Auckland's growth. More protected views could disappear.
"It could end up a completely different animal - we could be even worse off."
City leaders plan to build around 300,000 more homes by 2041, so "something will have to give", he says. "Do we go with Change 8 now or do we risk waiting for the Unitary Plan? It's a question of better the devil you know than the devil you don't."
The society's deputy chair, Mary Flaws, says newly identified view shafts - such as the one from SH20 to Mangere Mountain - are in a legal limbo with nothing preventing developers from obstructing them. Developers can apply for a consent to override view shafts but Ms Flaws says that defeats the point of having them. "If numerous consents to breach the view shafts are granted in one area, there is a cumulative effect."
It seems the council faces a catch-22 of its own making: a target of the Auckland Plan is World Heritage Status for the cones.
Says Ms Flaws, "We need comfort now that protection is a certainty. If that doesn't happen, one is drawn to the conclusion that this target is just hot air. They do not care about our volcanoes at all."
INTENSIFICATION VERSUS PROTECTION
Councillor Penny Webster opposed the forum vote on the protected views, saying it would be unwise to initiate plan changes "willy-nilly" before the Unitary Plan is drafted in December. (Public consultation on the Unitary Plan takes place in 2013. Meanwhile, existing district plans and regional policies and plans remain operative.)
"The end result will be a good plan for all Aucklanders - that includes developers as well. Some see them as the worst people on earth but I don't. We've got to be pragmatic."
She says it isn't possible to accommodate intensive development and protect everything."I don't anticipate wholesale destruction of view shafts but everyone thinks high-rises will destroy everything we hold dear. There are different ways of doing plan changes."
Fellow councillor Sandra Coney presents the opposite point of view.
She says the "spectre" of intensive development was raised by the former Auckland City Council and proved unfounded. The council was about to affirm its commitment to protecting view shafts when it was dismantled, and she has worries about the delay.
When it's a choice between development or volcanoes, she sees a winner and a loser.
"Fears view shafts will impact on intensification are negligible but the effects on the cones would be significant."
She supports a compact city but is worried it's being used as a reason not to retain Auckland's heritage and not to protect its cones.
"Council is seriously considering applying for our volcanic cones to be a World Heritage Site. "It'd be seen as shooting yourself in the foot to start obstructing views of the cones through intensification."
The Tamaki Collective owns Auckland's volcanic cones. Spokesman Paul Majurey did not reply to The Aucklander's questions by deadline.
The council's Independent Maori Statutory Board says it has not fully considered the matter and is not in a position to comment.
LOSING THEIR VIEWS
Viewshafts suggested for deletion from the protected list:
Views from St Heliers Bay Rd to Mt Wellington (Maungarei)
Views from Pilkington Road to Mt Wellington
Views from West Tamaki Rd to Mt Wellington
Views from inside W14 to Mt Wellington
Views from Line Road to Mt Wellington
Views from Kingsland to Mt Eden (Maungawhau)
Views from Sandringham Rd extn to Mt Albert/Owairaka
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