Opinion: Project threatens precious heritage

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Company planning to develop historic area for housing urged to work for a solution everyone can live with.
Many including (from left) Nesha Tuki, Reece Autagavaia and Diego Thompson are uniting to protect Ihumatao.  Picture / Jason Oxenham
Many including (from left) Nesha Tuki, Reece Autagavaia and Diego Thompson are uniting to protect Ihumatao. Picture / Jason Oxenham

On the face of it, a decision to give the go-ahead for residential development of a site at Ihumatao, five minutes from Auckland Airport, has a lot of appeal. The city is gripped by a housing crisis and the development, by Fletcher Residential, will mean 480 new dwellings on a 32ha block.

But the proposal, which received resource consent on Friday, is full of fishhooks, not least that it's not aimed at improving the stock of affordable housing. Big questions also remain about whether the infrastructure will be able to cope with a sudden increase in population.

The problems lie deeper still. The development threatens the heritage of one of the oldest continuously occupied settlements in the country.

Polynesians arrived on this small peninsula in the Manukau Harbour at the beginning of human settlement on these islands. They cleared land, raised families and prospered. Their descendants are among those now living in what is arguably Auckland's oldest "suburb".

For hundreds of years, Maori lived here and gardened the land; later, Pakeha settlers farmed it. But this heritage is under threat. Nearby quarrying and wastewater treatment, chemical contamination of Oruarangi Awa, commercial development and urban sprawl have all taken their toll, yet this unique community and landscape still has a beating heart.

Fletcher Residential, which is 56 per cent foreign-owned, plans to develop the so-called Special Housing Area 62 next to the Ihumatao village and the protected Otuataua Stonefields. But mana whenua, community leaders and groups, conservationists, local politicians, unions and growing numbers of ordinary citizens from all over Auckland and beyond, are uniting under the banner "Protect Ihumatao". They are worried about the loss of open space and the inadequacy of the infrastructure to support a development that was never the subject of adequate consultation.

The land at Ihumatao, unlike other special housing areas, was confiscated in the 1860s and given to settlers whose descendants have farmed it ever since. If this project goes ahead, it would redouble the injustice of the original confiscation.

Archaeologist Dave Veart says the land is an inseparable part of "our Stonehenge - the Otuataua Stonefields" and needs protection because of its value for the study of the origins of human settlement of this country.

To the disbelief and distress of many, the land was rezoned from rural to future development zone by an Environment Court decision in 2012.

Two years later, the block was gazetted as a special housing area and the Overseas Investment Office approved its purchase by Fletcher Building. The corporation then applied for resource consent to rezone it. That application was approved on Friday.

Because of the "fast-track" special housing area legislation only adjacent landowners were notified of Fletcher's application, but the whole village will be affected. Pania Newton, who is from Ihumatao, said residents felt aggrieved and shut out of the process.

A claim before the Waitangi Tribunal challenges both the legislation and the creation of Special Housing Area 62 on the grounds that mana whenua were not properly consulted. At a meeting of the Auckland Council in August, five councillors sought unsuccessfully to have the special housing area designation revoked, saying that when they made their original decision, they were not aware of the cultural and historic significance of the site.

One, Dr Cathy Casey, now says "I have a scar on my soul" about the decision.

A community campaign called Soul (Save Our Unique Landscape) has been leading opposition to the designation, working to protect the land through respectful democratic, community-led, evidence-based discussion, debate, demonstration and action.

Soul has presented its case to local and special-interest groups as well as to council and government committees. A 4000-signature petition was presented to the Government in November.

The local board and local MP, Su'a William Sio, along with other Maori Party, Green and Labour politicians, support the campaign to protect Ihumatao.

However just last week Dr Nick Smith, Minister for the Environment and for Building and Housing, rejected our request for an independently facilitated process to find an innovative solution acceptable to all.

If it goes ahead, Special Housing Area 62 will destroy heritage landscape for the sake of housing that could and should be sited where infrastructure is better. Soul is now calling on Fletcher Building to act as a responsible corporate citizen and work collaboratively with interested parties to come up with a solution that everyone can live with.

People need places to dream, to breathe, to connect to ancestors, history and the earth itself. Ihumatao is one such place. We urge readers to go for a drive, a bike-ride or a guided walk there to warm the land. We need you to love it and fight for it because it will be lost unless New Zealanders take action to protect it.

Tim McCreanor, of Westmere, is a social scientist at Massey University. Frances Hancock, of Mangere Bridge, contributes to local community and environmental initiatives. Both are Soul supporters; http://www.soulstopsha.org

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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