Thousands of dollars is changing hands in west and north Auckland, to keep people quiet, so that private land fills can continue unopposed.
It's all part of the private dumping of building site 'fill', usually just clay, but sometimes also scraps of wood and concrete. The reason for the practice is to find a cheap place to get rid of excess 'fill' from Auckland's growing number of building sites.
It's not so much the dumping itself that annoys residents. It is the noise, road hazards and road damage on otherwise quiet rural roads that is of concern in areas of north-west and north Auckland, such as Taupaki and Dairy Flat.
Henderson local board member and pharmacist Warren Flaunty has seen the cheques written out to dump site neighbours, at Nixon Rd, Taupaki, but would not confirm their exact amount.
"I have seen cheques written out to neighbours, not to object," he says.
People who receive the cheques, understood to be $6000 or more, are asked to sign letters, rather than object to the resource consent being granted to fill management company Dirt Works.
Dirt Works is a Whenuapai-based specialist in clean fill, earthworks and trucking. Its website says it deals mostly in the northwest and it will sometimes offer clean fill free of charge — although residents believe they sometimes pay owners to accept fill. It used to be a small operation and is now estimated to have more than 50 trucks.
Yes — it's true that he has written out cheques, says Dirt Works director Lydden Wood.
"There's nothing wrong or illegal when mitigating an effect on a party," he says, defending the practice.
"If someone is affected by dust or something, it's not wrong for me to say, 'How about we pay for your water and give you a couple of grand'," he says.
Legal experts spoken to by the Herald confirm this is correct.
The concern is that because immediate neighbours do not object, other neighbours and residents are not notified of the dump site.
"Dirt Works works by telling people they will fill in their gully for free, or say $500, and paying off the neighbours so they won't object to the resource consent," says Louise Johnston, a Dairy Flat board member, who lives on a road where Dirt Works used to operate.
Up to 100 return trips a day
There are dozens of private dump sites around. At least two of the larger sites, 38 Nixon Rd, Taupaki, and Blackbridge Rd in Dairy Flat, have been battle grounds between residents and truckers for a year or two. While dump operators believe they are doing a public service, many residents are upset and disgruntled about reduced road safety, more road damage, noise and vibration and cost to ratepayers from the trucks.
Residents' concern is that the roads are not designed for frequent use by large trucks and trailer units — in the Nixon Rd case, up to 100 return trips a day — or 80 a day, on average, for five and a half days a week. Associated with this is the danger to other road users, including pedestrians, horse riders and cyclists.
Flaunty and his wife live in Nixon Rd, Taupaki, on a farm. Their house is fairly near the road. Flaunty says his phone line stopped working and the vibrations from the trucks even worked loose the pipe feeding their hot-water cylinder. Cracks appeared in the ceiling and two vehicles crashed into a concrete wall outside his property — due, he claims, to trucks breaking up the road surface on the bend.
Residents say there were two road accidents on Nixon Rd in one day, due to road damage caused by truck and trailer units — one accident was where a motorcyclist and a car collided following a damaged road shoulder. A local paper reported the motorcyclist was treated in hospital and photographs show road damage at the accident scene.
The situation is muddied by the road getting much busier over the past couple of years.
A meeting gathered about 80 people together and soon, the battle had begun. Flaunty, the local ratepayers association and others have fired salvos of letters to Auckland Transport and the council, with varying responses, including one that said — before the accidents — that road safety was unaffected by the 80 daily truck movements.
Senior council and AT staff came out to have a look. And to improve safety, AT dropped Nixon Rd's speed limit to 50km/h and police increased patrols, nabbing a truck driver for excess breath alcohol. Dirt Works director Wood says the excess alcohol driver was not driving one of his trucks — and would have been a contractor.
But so far, AT's only work has been patching the road, filling pot holes. It appears the big repair will wait until after the trucks have left for good.
Hidden costs to ratepayers are also a point. Flaunty says the repair to Nixon Rd will be around a million dollars. Until the major repairs are undertaken, AT just patches on the seal. Residents believe an underlying issue is that the road just has a thin seal, put on years back to stop the dust.
Wood agrees that Nixon Rd has been wrecked, although it is not his company's responsibility to repair it. At one point, during the battle with the residents, he was crying with frustration, having spent eight years getting the consent. He had the trucks take a longer journey, to save the road.
"This road [Nixon Rd] wasn't up to the task, we didn't foresee that, but we couldn't not have proceeded, once we started," he says.
Residents are concerned about monitoring, and the fill quality. Although it appears generally clean, Flaunty says it sometimes contains pieces of concrete and wood from building sites.
Flaunty also wonders if the land will be returned properly to its former use.
A growing buisness
Private dumping occurs for a variety of reasons. Auckland Council tips charge by weight and are known to be expensive. On a large building site, many contractors try to use the fill themselves, to save money and for environmental reasons. Some large tips even recycle concrete, which is ground up and sold. On smaller sites, this doesn't happen.
But clearly there is an increased need for soil dumping. Wood reckons that local sites save fuel — from fewer trucks on the road.
The landfill sites are on private land, say in a gully. When the gully is full, the trucking firm moves on to another private site, usually nearby.
Private tip sites are supposed to be monitored. Flaunty says monitoring consists of the driver signing a book. It is a condition that landfills are returned to their former use. He's not convinced this will happen, although Wood says once people see filled in gullies, with grass re-sown, they want one done on their own land.
Meanwhile, residents have made probably dozens of complaints to the council and AT. A council letter says trucks pay a lot of user charges, but AT is less happy about the repair costs, says one of its letters.
Complaining to the council, Flaunty and others were told at first that "the effects were less than minor," a statement he questions, based on the damage to the roads, his house and the road accidents.
Complaining again, he wrote: "You have changed a quiet contented and happy community, my community, into an angry, stressful and anxious community at the stroke of a pen."
Neighbours are furious they never had the chance to object. Council staff, claimed Flaunty, "are negligent in giving these consents, and in giving them on a non-notified basis."
It appears that the council is bound by the fine print of the Resource Management Act, looking at a letter from Auckland Council.
Nixon Rd residents have had a reprieve, as Dirt Works closed down the site over winter, until it or another tip re-opens. But the trucks will soon be back. Wood confirms work will resume, to finish off the job, but that it is nearly complete, and this point was achieved well ahead of schedule.
Blackbridge Rd, in Dairy Flat, has no footpath or street lighting along its 5km length and — says local resident and new local board member Louise Johnston — it is used by children walking home from school, horse riders and cyclists. But their peace and quiet has been interrupted for several years by trucks taking fill to a private landfill.
One day a couple of years back Johnston was jogging along the road and just managed to leap onto the bridge abutment as a truck came up behind her, too fast to stop, on the one way bridge on Blackbridge Rd.
After the narrow escape, she was concerned the driver "didn't bother to stop" (to apologise). Shaken, she phoned up to complain. (The trucking firm was neither of the two mentioned in this story.)
When Johnston heard of an application for an even bigger private dump, 6.5ha, with a projected 220 truck journeys a day for 10 years, she joined other residents to oppose it.
Auckland Council turned down the resource consent, but fill management firm Norsho Bulc appealed to the Environment Court. Johnston is a member of the Blackbridge Road Protection Society which raised $200,000 to employ lawyers and experts to fight the appeal.
Finding in favour of Norsho Bulc, the Environment Court's decision included reducing the number of truck movements from 220 to 160 a day, installing a warning system on the bridge, so pedestrians using the road and the single-lane bridge know that the trucks are coming, and sealing the access road to the new dump.
If the narrow one-lane bridge was going to be upgraded she might have accepted the dump site. She was relieved the judge refused an application, by Norsho Bulc, for the society to pay costs.
'Vilified on Facebook'
Norsho Bulc is owned by Allan Blackmore and his wife, Patricia. When the Herald rang, Allan was away, out of cellphone range. At first Patricia didn't want to comment but she did say, when asked about the one-lane bridge, that: "I think everything that was asked for by the traffic engineer has been put into place."
She also felt she had been "vilified on Facebook," and other websites.
Johnston says the operator, Norsho Bulc, will block off a stream, something that no one seems to care about. In Johnston's view, such dumps will never be suitable to build on, when one day the zoning may be changed to allow subdivision.
"The Environment Court is about enabling development," she says, "The word 'environment' should be taken out of 'The Environment Court'. I just expected more from New Zealand."
So what is the answer? Location is one. The building boom may amp up further. Wood says a new private site will be accessed from a state highway, built to cope with big trucks. Better planning is another approach.
Auckland councillor Greg Sayers says small scale private tips are not the problem, but large scale private industrial tips, accessed by local roads are. He favours the council zoning particular areas for dumping — and ensuring that they have roads that are "fit for purpose".
Flaunty says: "Council should be running these clean fill sites and getting the revenue from them. We do need clean fill sites for development in Auckland. It has to go somewhere."
The Environment Court suggested Auckland Council needs to work harder and questioned whether the council and AT have done enough to sort out the private dumping issue, given "the Auckland Unitary Plan is predicated on a stated need for some 400,000 new homes over the next 30 years, then roughly 10 million cubic metres of spoil may need to be disposed of".
"The court would expect that both the council and Auckland Transport should be making some strategic plans as to how and where that will be done, but no one involved in this case appeared to know whether that was under way," the decision said.