After a game of bluff which has dragged on for more than a year, Auckland councillors have caved in and agreed to sell Gulf Harbour Investments the freehold title to 5.5ha of strategic coastal land that provides access to the popular 936-berth marina.

In exchange, Auckland Council hopes to retrieve GHIL's lease rights over the 3ha block of reclaimed land known as the Hammerhead that protects the boats from the open sea.

The council is also hoping to collect an additional $7 million to $8 million as part of the deal.

The controversial decision was made in secret at last week's meeting of the strategy and finance committee and is subject to prior discussion with iwi. Oddly, there's no mention of any prior consultation with the 630 berth-holders, who both last week and a year ago indicated their interest in buying at least part of the land if it came on the market in order to guarantee future public access to the marina.


Neither has there been any wider public consultation about this plan to privatise a stretch of publicly owned foreshore. In this day and age, such privatisation seems bizarre.

The decision to sell comes after a tense stand-off between GHIL and Rodney District Council (now part of Auckland Council) over the governance of the Hammerhead. Back in the late 1970s when special legislation was passed to allow the transformation of a swampy piece of farmland into a marina and residential development, the harbourside reclamation was always seen as being for public use. Local activists claim that in 1985, the Commissioner of Crown Land recommended that 90 per cent of the Hammerhead be public reserve. This was also the vision of Wilkins and Davies Construction, the original developers. Over the years, a trail of press clippings repeats the scenario of fast ferry bases, car parking and helipads whisking residents and visitors to and from this area.

Over the years, this has come to pass, with a ferry terminal, a large parking area created for users of the public boat launching ramp, for campervan tourists making use of the pump-out facilities, and for casual trippers. Unfortunately, back in the late 1970s when the marina was getting established, the Rodney council failed to cement its intentions into law by zoning the Hammerhead for recreational and public use.

In 2008, Rodney District Council fought plans by GHIL to develop a 300-apartment complex on the Hammerhead. The battle went through to the Court of Appeal and in late 2010 the council won. The court ruled against the apartments but pointed out that GHIL's 100-year lease - valid until 2088 - remained.

There's been a standoff ever since. The worry for Auckland Council is that GHIL could, as the leaseholder, suddenly start charging for public access. That would leave the significant community improvements built up over the years on the wrong side of a toll gate. This includes the ferry terminal, car and boat parking and the boat launch ramp.

A year ago, GHIL approached Auckland Council Properties with the proposal councillors have now voted to accept. In return for the freehold on all the land abutting the marina, GHIL will surrender its lease over the Hammerhead, plus toss in some cash.

As a way of cleaning up the mess the old Rodney politicians left behind, it's certainly a quick solution. But is it the right one?

The berth-holders would certainly say no. So would those against the privatisation of foreshore - or in this case, former seabed - land. There's also the question of what is planned for the land. Parts are already heavily used for parking by berth holders. Where will they go if GHIL decides to build their apartments there instead?

There's talk of invoking the Public Works Act to make right what was always envisaged. Councillors were advised that such a move was likely to lead to litigation. But that rather misses the point about whether doing this quick and expedient deal is the right answer.

Chairing last week's meeting was former Rodney Mayor Penny Webster, who two years ago was celebrating her council's court victory over GHIL. The majority supported her, with only Maori board chair David Taipari and councillors Coney, Filipaina, Casey, Lee, Northey and Wayne Walker opposed. Absent were Mayor Brown and councillors Anae and Quax.