The Spencer family: One rule for the rich?

By Chris Barton

Stanley Point in Devonport in 1963 (left) and 2010. Photos / Google
Stanley Point in Devonport in 1963 (left) and 2010. Photos / Google

'One rule for the rich another for the rest of us?

One of New Zealand's wealthiest families is on the verge of signing a special deal with North Shore City Council; one that affords a dispensation to new regulations designed to protect heritage zones.

Money talks. It says: "I've spent a lot to be here and I'm entitled to rearrange things on my own terms." Fair enough perhaps, one's home is one's castle. But what worries many is the disregard for the heritage character of the neighbourhood. And the impact on the community as ordinary homes are turned into tradeable commodities with unsustainable prices tags only the very rich can afford.

To lay all these troubles at the feet of the Spencer family, long-time property owners and sometime residents of Devonport, who have appealed the council's "Plan Change 21", is slightly unfair. The rule changes came about because of a number of high profile "demolitions by stealth" by owners of century old Victorian villas and other heritage houses. As it turns out, a closer look at the Spencer properties on Stanley Point show quite a bit of community demolition too, but all perfectly legal because it was done before heritage protection rules existed.

The old rules, designed to protect neighbourhoods built in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Northcote, Birkenhead and Devonport, came into force in 1993. The problem was a big loophole in the regulations. People could effectively demolish entire houses under the guise of alterations. "They were keeping a bay window or a piece of the floor or whatever," says City Environment group manager Trevor Mackie. "People got irate by that sort of demolition by the back door, but also the way the council seemed powerless to define it as demolition rather than an alteration."

Plan Change 21 changes all that - laying down tougher guidelines for what can be altered, what sort of fences are permitted on street frontages, setting 1940 as the new cut-off date for what buildings get heritage protection, and changing the "activity status" of alterations. It was the latter change that the Spencers, through their property company Clime Asset Management, objected to. What surprised many was just how much property the Spencers owned - 16 sections on Stanley Point, with 15 of them in a block sloping towards Ngataringa Bay. Based on 2008 valuations the properties are worth just over $20 million.

What the Spencers wanted was the rules to stay as they were - the oddly named "controlled activity" status rather than the "limited discretionary" of Plan Change 21 they now have. The Herald understands that the deal struck between Clime Asset Management, the Council, and other interested parties - the Auckland Regional Council, the NZ Historic Places Trust, and Devonport Heritage - keeps "controlled activity" status on a block of five seaward properties on Stanley Point. The street frontage properties, will however, be subject to the new Plan Change 21 rules. What this does is give the Spencers much more freedom and scope in what they can build than the rest of Devonport heritage zone.

None of the parties could comment on the deal because it's yet to go before the Environment Court for approval, but the Herald understands the council and the other interested parties have agreed to the compromise, because of the greater good - it was critical for heritage protection that Plan Change 21 should be operational before the SuperCity came into force. The Spencer appeal, which may have been delayed if it had gone through a full Environment Court hearing, was the last remaining barrier to that happening.

The big unanswered question: What on earth do the Spencers have in mind for their Stanley Point land? A closer look at what has happened to the land reveals some sort of long term strategy at play. A strategy that spans several generations.

Berridge Spencer and his wife Fay first bought property on Stanley Point in the early 1930s and lived in a "Spanish Mission" style mansion at 70 Stanley Point Road with their children, John, Peter and Oenone. Over a number years Berridge, the son of Caxton Paper founder Albert Spencer, stared acquiring neighbouring properties and demolishing some of the houses on them. Quotable Value searches of property titles show Number 89 next door was bought in 1949, the one next to that in 1944 and further along numbers 90 and 92 in 1953 where he built a boatshed and jetty for his yachts. The boats included Windhaven a 73 foot Col Wilde design Ketch launched in 1948 and the largest most luxurious yacht built in New Zealand at the time. Former residents of the area recall how the burglar alarm on the yacht would often go off at night.

Before long Berridge Spencer owned all the seaward properties and some of the road frontage houses above as well. His son John carried on the acquisition tradition from the 60s to the 80s which he, in turn, passed on to his son, another Berridge, who now controls the portfolio and has completed further acquisitions, the most recent in 2006. Sometimes the purchased houses would be left unoccupied and fell into disrepair before being demolished. Most of the house on the street frontage were modest bungalows built in the 30s and 40s. Over time at least six houses were demolished. But thanks to the time slider feature on Google Earth, we can look back to an aerial photo of 1963 which shows just how much of the streetscape and neighbourhood has been lost. Today there are just four left fronting the street. The Spencers own all but one. None of the family live there at present, but they do employ a gardener who lives in one of the houses they own on the Point and maintains the estate.

At the time neighbours wondered what Berridge was up to. Rumour has it he would have liked to have bought all the houses on Stanley point and left it as a reserve. "I always thought it was shame he pulled these places down because it's a nice place to live," said a long time resident.

As to what happens now, no one knows. Under Plan Change 21, any new building on the street will have to be in keeping with the character of the area. The area does have some traditional Victorian villas and at the end of Stanley Point there are a number of large Arts and Crafts styled houses built between 1910 and 1940. But there is also a lot of new modern building and infill housing as sections have been subdivided. As many of the houses there were built in the 1930s and 40s, that probably allows greater flexibility than older parts of Devonport. But plans for some kind of private gated development would be more difficult because of tighter controls on street frontage fencing.

The council's Trevor Mackie explains: "The character of older houses largely comes from the street appearance of them. They were well mannered towards the street in their designs. You lose that very quickly when you get solid fences or solid walls along boundaries to close off the house. Plan Change 21 was a response to seeing more concrete block walls going up around Devonport to get more privacy and make a piece of the streetscape suddenly no longer available."

As for the seaward properties, the only house left is the Spanish Mission style mansion. In theory the Spencers could use the controlled activity loophole to "alter" it but effectively demolish the building for something new. But one imagines the former family home may also have some sentimental value which the Spencers may wish to honour. It's also possible that the house may be included on the Council District Plan's heritage schedule. Mackie says it's not scheduled at present and would not say whether it was being considered. "Leading into the new council we are doing a review of all our building schedules and we've got a file full of possibilities for additional schedules or removals of some that have been altered."

Heritage architects say the greater issue for the seaward properties is building that respects the coastal nature of the sites - an issue of building scale in the landscape. While they don't have objections to modernist buildings there, they are concerned about the effect large, ostentatious buildings as seen in places like Auckland's Paratai Drive, Narrow Neck's Seacliffe Avenue and Takapuna's Clifton Road may have on the coast.

Others point out, as the rightful owners of the land, what the Spencers want do with the site is their business. And their objections to Plan Change 21 were simply a logical response to protect the use of an asset. Afterall, land banking isn't a crime.

Then again, no man is an island and the Spencer Stanley Point properties do represent a scar in the middle of a community. As Mackie points out the heritage charm of places like Devonport is a big part of why people want to live there. Heritage zoning, he says, develops from community values - finding the balance between how much control the community asks for and how much individuals within the community try to oppose it. " I think the Devonport community genuinely does value the heritage character of that settlement and the planning supports that."

Plan Change 21

Before

Cut-off date 1930

Alterations and new buildings were a "controlled activity" meaning while Council could apply conditions regarding heritage values, the application still had to be granted. No clear dividing line between alteration and demolition.

After

Cut-off date 1940

Activity status for new buildings and alterations now "limited discretionary" so applications can be declined if they aren't designed in character with the area.

More guidance so people can see what is expected and so those following the Council's recommended solutions can more confidently expect to get approval.

More prescriptive rules on fencing, how much can be changed on front, side and rear elevations of existing houses.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 28 Dec 2014 07:25:40 Processing Time: 635ms