Helen Clark has thrown her support behind a community petition fighting for public input into the private development of apartment blocks in a pristine Bay of Plenty beach town.
The former Prime Minister joined 563 other people to sign a petition calling for greater transparency in resource consent applications for new builds at Waihī Beach.
Petitioners want the Western Bay of Plenty District Council to publicly notify consents for developments in the town's commercial and commercial transitional zone that do not adhere to District Plan provisions.
But the council has denied the request, saying its planning process is run by experienced professionals and not subject to public influence without special circumstances.
Clark told the Bay of Plenty Times she believed there were enough reasons to justify the need for public notification of consent applications for such developments.
"We can't necessarily anticipate what the outcome would be but if development is contravening different sections of the District Plan, it [resource consent] should not just be done in an arrangement between a developer and council."
Clark, who owns half of her father's Waihī Beach property with her sisters, has a "long-term presence" at the seaside town. She said there was "a concern about what will happen to the beach".
"Will development at the beach be sensitive or more intensive? Will it create more pressure on existing infrastructure? What about the water, what about the sewerage?
"I don't want to pre-judge what the outcome would be but there is apprehension about what the future holds, apprehension about council officers and developers signing [projects] off without public notification."
Clark said areas at Waihī Beach where some developments were proposed were at risk of flooding and tsunami. She also understood some developments presented height, parking and proximity-to-creek issues.
"All of those things are things that should be judged at a hearing."
Clark referred to the 2017 Ministry for Environment document Coastal Hazards and Climate Change: Guidance for Local Government, which advises on adapting coastal communities to coastal hazard risks from climate change. This included coastal erosion, coastal inundation, and rising groundwater caused by sea-level rise.
"This climate-control hazard guidance is very important so [applications] shouldn't just be signed off for developers in the area without consultation.
"It's in the public interest and I stand firmly for it," Clark said.
The petition was presented to the council's performance and monitoring committee last week by the Katikati Waihi Beach Residents and Ratepayers' Association.
The association's secretary, Keith Hay, told councillors that residents did not want "another Surfers' Paradise" casting shadows over Waihī Beach.
Hay said that in recent years there had been a block of six three-storey apartments built in the commercial transition zone.
Another block of five three-storey apartments was being built in the zone "and another block of seven four-storey apartments in the commercial zone are being advertised for sale even though we are told no application has been made for resource consent".
Hay said the proposed apartments appeared to exceed the height allowed under the District Plan.
Several other properties were also highlighted as not appearing to have met District Plan rules.
Hay said that in his view too many dispensations were being given to some developers and "we are concerned".
"It appears to us that staff in the planning department are either naive or ignorant of the Waihī Beach environment," he said.
"We want staff to stop making these pre-application agreements. We want them to stop deciding that the environmental effects of dispensations from the rules for restricted discretionary activities are less than minor and don't need notification.
"We want all applications for projects in the commercial and commercial transition zone to be publicly notified."
Hay said such apartments would not, in his view, help with housing people in need.
The council's group manager of policy, planning and regulatory services, Rachael Davie, said the decision on whether to notify a resource consent was determined by the council, as the consent authority, which applied statutory tests set out in the Resource Management Act (RMA).
The council could not publicly notify an application unless it decided the proposed activity was likely to have adverse effects on the environment that were more than minor, or if special circumstances existed, she said.
"So while I accept that a petition has been received, the notification process is not a democratic one where the weight of public sentiment around a proposal can influence the requirement to publicly notify a resource consent proposal and therefore, hold a hearing."
Davie rejected any assertion council staff were naive or ignorant of the Waihī Beach environment.
"Each and every application for resource consent is assessed on its merits, against the requirements of the District Plan (and other relevant statutory plans) and within the context of the immediate and surrounding environment," she said.
"I accept that it can be difficult for laypeople to understand the complexities of resource management law, the resource consent process and the purpose of District Plans.
"However, council planning staff are trained professionals with many decades of combined planning experience.
"A resource consent by simple definition is a formal approval from council to do something that hasn't been clearly identified in a District Plan as either permitted or prohibited. Council's job is to assess the environmental effects of what is proposed."
For example, if a building is proposed to exceed a specified height, the council assesses the environmental effects of that and whether anyone might be potentially affected by that. In cases where insufficient information is provided, the council puts the application on hold until more information is provided, she said.
Davie said resource consents were generally prepared by planning professionals and assessed by planning professionals "who understand well the legislative framework within which they make their decisions".
"I am likely to recommend that Mr Hay seek some independent legal or planning advice to more closely understand the resource consent process."
Davie confirmed there was a proposed development for Waihī Beach being marketed but there was no resource consent application yet lodged with the council, despite staff having received some preliminary plans.
Shaun Marlo, the architect for that development, said he understood the concerns of the community but much of the issue had been based on misunderstandings of the proposed development.
"It is, and has always has been our intention to develop the site as a multi-case commercial and residential offering that complies with existing zoning.
"This will include approximately 300sq m of retail road frontage space and ... commercial space above that. This will replace the 120sq m of dated residential housing that [has] been converted for retail purposes.
The proposed residential component has been designed to sit behind the commercial/retail offering to the rear of the site, largely obscured from the road and sensitively integrated within the setting of Waihī Beach."