You can't see or touch them. Indeed most Aucklanders are blissfully ignorant of their very existence. But without the protected volcanic viewshafts, Auckland would quickly become just another boring, building-cluttered, cityscape.

In the early 1970s, there was uproar when The Pines, a new-fangled multi-storey apartment complex, rose above the villas at the base of Mt Eden, competing for dominance and blocking views from afar. Far-sighted Auckland Regional Council planner Roy Turner warned that if Auckland wanted to preserve key views to its unique landscape features - the volcanic cones - for future generations, there was no point just standing around and wringing our hands.

His solution was to insert into the regional plan 63 volcanic cones viewshafts - or sightlines - providing unimpeded views from major roads or vantage points to the major cones. He persuaded politicians that protecting these views was as important as protecting the cones themselves.

As a result we can now travel along the northern approaches to the harbour bridge and look across the harbour to bond with Mt Eden.

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Commuters into the city on the Northwestern Motorway can see Rangitoto, Mt Eden and Mt Albert slowly unfold before their eyes. But for how much longer? That's the crunch question facing Auckland councillors at Thursday's meeting of the Regional Development and Operations Committee. Councillors have to decide whether to leave well alone, or risk having to genuflect to the planners' new god, intensification.

Introduced in 1977, the viewshafts proved invaluable during the property boom that followed. Even the Sky Tower had to move from its preferred spot in Upper Symonds St to avoid views to Mt Eden and squeeze on to the corner of its present site, to avoid another one. Still, over the years, some buildings did mysteriously end up within the shafts, and in some cases, trees took liberties that were forbidden to architects and developers. So in 1996, the Auckland Regional Council and Auckland City began a joint review of all the existing viewshafts.

It took until September 2005 for a revised list to be officially notified, proposing 34 additions, and 25 removals. Years of appeals and mediation followed, and it wasn't until March this year that the new viewshaft list was made "operative" by the Auckland Council. All that was then required was to incorporate it into the local plan.

The only problem was that by the end of the 16 years of public consultation and submissions and appeals, the local body structure had been transformed into a single Super City.

The options were to either incorporate the list into the relevant old district plans by way of a plan change, or to make them part of the new super city's Unitary Plan, which is still being created.

Supporters of the viewshafts and campaigners like the Volcanic Cones Society back the first alternative. This would lock the viewshafts firmly back into place by April next year and prevent opportunist developers slipping in to some of the proposed new shafts and obtaining consents while the debate rumbles on.

On the other side are Auckland Council planners, like regional and local planning manager Penny Pirrit, who wants to relitigate the whole process via the Unitary Plan process.

If the viewshafts are incorporated into the old district plans, they will eventually become part of the Unitary Plan unaltered. But if they become part of the Unitary Plan debate, opponents worry that the shafts will then have to compete with Mayor Len Brown and the planners' desire for high-rise intensification.

Underlying this concern is a passage in the planners' report on Thursday's agenda noting "it is possible that the elected representatives and communities will want to discuss any tensions between, for example, the viewshafts and town centre development ... The Unitary Plan process will provide opportunities to consider any competing interests and to resolve them".

Councillor Sandra Coney, a former ARC councillor and viewshaft advocate, rejects such "opportunities". She complains the planners are just trying to relitigate old battles in the name of intensification "which is becoming the Holy Grail before which everything has to bow down, heritage, maunga, whatever ...".

Given that one of the goals of the new Auckland Plan is to achieve World Heritage Status for the region's volcanic field by 2020, it does seem daft to even contemplate compromising this ambition in such a way. After all, if you can't see the maunga, do they even exist?


Debate on this article has now ended.