Boating marinas across Auckland are the focus of a multi-million dollar development surge which some claim threatens to reduce public access to waterfront locations.

Richlister Simon Herbert is at the forefront of development plans with land at three marinas and plans for apartment buildings metres from the water's edge.

It seems likely other marinas owned by Auckland Council will also be offered for sale as its asset management body Panuku Development Auckland steps up moves to sell ratepayer-owned land to cut debt.

The unbundling of the marinas has come after decades of haphazard public ownership with some spaces protected by acts of Parliament and others through other forms of community ownership.

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But the moves to change have led to people from five marinas across Auckland forming a group opposing changes to waterfront land.

It has won the support of at least three Auckland councillors who are questioning Auckland Council's drive to sell public land and the way in which it is done.

That includes council's plan to use the Public Works Act to wipe the slate of building restrictions at Hobsonville Marina - previously called Westpark - which could lead to five-storey waterfront apartments that would block views of the sea.

Hobsonville Marina - previously
Hobsonville Marina - previously "Westpark" - in West Auckland, looking towards the central city.

The change in ownership and zoning to allow residential developments at the marinas, which run commuter ferry services, also leans on Auckland Council's Unitary Plan to encourage building around major transport hubs.

The new Auckland Marina Users Association's spokesman Euan Little said the council's attitude to marina land was at odds with Auckland calling itself the "City of Sails".

He said council had disregarded the special legislation designed to protect some of the marinas.

In doing so, it was "secretly and successfully pursuing this agenda of transferring publicly owned marina assets to private owners and is well advanced in this programme".

"The result of this is that a monopoly situation is starting to develop and one developer now owns the Bayswater and Pine Harbour Marinas and is on track to own Hobsonville as well."

That developer - Herbert's Empire Capital - last year bought Pine Harbour, near Whitford, for $22m and is planning a three-level apartment block with 28 units selling around $1.8m each.

Empire Capital also owns Bayswater Marina Village, near the Auckland Harbour Bridge, on which it plans to build around 120 homes alongside a small commercial area.

Empire Capital is also in pole position to buy land around Hobsonville Marina, with council currently consulting ratepayers on its decision to sell for a large proposed development.

Little said the pattern developing posed a threat to all marinas where council owned land, including the central city's Westhaven Marina.

The council intention to use the Public Works Act to wipe legal protections for land added to the threat level faced by marinas.

Euan Little moors his boat at Westhaven Marina and is concerned as to council's intentions.
Euan Little moors his boat at Westhaven Marina and is concerned as to council's intentions.

"My views is that Panuku see this as easy land to get rid of. We're doing a campaign to stop them."

Councillor John Watson said council's public consultation on Hobsonville Marina was "shoddy" and wasn't properly testing the public mood.

He was also critical of council's determination to dispose of land at "almost insulting" prices with the land at Hobsonville Marina set to go for between $2 million and $5 million. He said the waterfront apartments to be built on the land would fetch at least $1.2m.

"It doesn't stack up. Two to five million dollars is like peanuts for the land we're talking about where he wants to put in 200 apartments."

Watson and fellow councillor Wayne Walker had written to Environment Minister David Parker raising concerns about council's plan to sell the Hobsonville Marina land.

The letter said the proposals ignored the special legislation that protected the 592-berth marina for public use.

They also wrote the proposed apartment buildings would mean "a significant number of residents will lose entirely their sea views of the Upper Waitemata Harbour and the marina itself".

The councillors told Parker the views had been protected through a covenant for the original subdivision.

Councillor Daniel Newman, who was also opposed, said the plan to sell marina land ignored Auckland's maritime roots.

"We're becoming the City of Sales. Marinas are coming up as prize items on the block."

He said the sale of land at marinas was not driven by any consideration of how it was used but by the Panuku Development Auckland's drive to sell ratepayer-owned land to balance the budget of Auckland Mayor Phil Goff.

"We're talking an enormous programme of land sales to try and find the coins down the back of the couch to make the budget balance."

Panuku Development Auckland chief operating officer David Rankin said negotiations over areas where council held land at marinas was driven at getting money out of land that wasn't used for core council services.

"Any value we can release from that mass of property holdings obviously goes to help pay for stuff that would otherwise be a burden on rates."

He said the strategy drove discussions at Gulf Harbour and Westpark - now called Hobsonville Marina.

"The ratepayers aren't in the business of having marinas, broadly speaking, so the question has to be asked - why do we need that capital tied up in them when there's so many things council needs to spend its money on."

Rankin said there was no overarching council marina strategy other than selling land to pay down council debt.

He said public use of the areas was preserved through access to ferry terminals or public car parking.

Rankin confirmed that - in the case of Westpark, at least - the special law protecting its public use and blocking residential development could be wiped through use of the Public Works Act.

The powerful legislation empowers councils to take land deemed critical for projects which would benefit the public.

In this case, it would take the land from itself - an act which would wipe its special protections - and provide it to the developer with a clean slate allowing building.

The critical public service identified which would allow the Public Works Act would be housing.

For residents around Westpark, the development would likely mean the loss of sea views with the developer wanting to build to the maximum allowable height of five storeys.

"How much it blocks out will depend on the height. That's just one element in the overall discussion. Nothing has been agreed."

Rankin said there was "heaps" of public access to Auckland's waterfront beyond marinas with hundreds of hectares of reserve on or near the foreshore.

Empire Capital's Simon Herbert has plans for developments at three of Auckland's marinas.
Empire Capital's Simon Herbert has plans for developments at three of Auckland's marinas.

"We don't have to own every single bit of it. There are ways to have marina businesses fitting in there but also to get other uses out of it."

Herbert gave evidence to Auckland Council's Unitary Plan hearings - the process which charted a vision for Auckland's future - in which he described the Bayswater Marina as "prime waterfront location that is currently sparse and inefficiently used".

"Currently, it is not a successful or well-utilised public area, and as mentioned above is predominantly used as a car park."

Herbert said there had been submissions suggesting broad public access to the area, beyond the access strips provided, should be allowed.

He rejected that, saying: "The public have received the capital value for the land we purchased and I believe we should be able to make reasonable use of that land. It is not reasonable, having paid for the freehold of the land, that it continue to be required to be used for public purposes."

Herbert told the NZ Herald: "We are very aware of the need for public access to the coast and other open spaces."

He said the company's projects would deliver housing in sought-after locations, improved public transport, better public access to the waterfront and would "future proof" the existing marinas.

"Across Auckland there is now wide acceptance that marinas and coastal locations are more than just places to tie up boats, and park cars.

"There are a limited number of berth holders who want to maintain the status quo. But generally speaking, the local communities want better access to the water.

"They welcome the idea of new amenities like cafes and restaurant. They're excited by the prospect of new landscaping and attractive boardwalks.

"They don't see value in large areas of prime land being used only for parking cars and trailers."

Empire Capital bought Hobsonville for $18.5m (2013), Pine Harbour for $22m (2015) and Bayswater for a total of $7.75m over seven years for the initial lease and then freehold.