Auckland Transport backs down after residents, MPs fight for old pohutukawa

Auckland's Battle of the Pohutukawa has been won by a community uprising against the council's transport authority.

Directors of Auckland Transport - after being besieged by messages from residents, community groups, and MPs from both sides of Parliament - decided yesterday afternoon to save six giant pohutukawa lining Great North Rd at Western Springs.

They decided unanimously, behind closed doors after hearing impassioned pleas from supporters of the 81-year-old trees in a public session packed out by about 60 people and their placards, to reject a recommendation from council planning commissioners to give them the chop.

Auckland Transport chairman Lester Levy noted after the meeting that yesterday was the first occasion on which the controversy, previously handled by officers under delegated authority, had come to his board.

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The timing was tight, given a deadline of 5pm for his organisation to tell the council whether it accepted or rejected the planning recommendation.

But he said the board accepted the proposal to chop the trees to make more room for vehicles turning off Great North Rd to an upgraded motorway interchange ran against its strategic priorities, particularly improved public transport.

Dr Levy said it would be back to the drawing board for the Western Springs precinct, as Auckland Transport did not have the power to amend its proposal without going through a lengthy statutory process.

Waitemata Local Board chairman Shale Chambers, who had early yesterday warned the board of the reputational risk to Auckland Transport if the trees were removed, said last night it was impossible to find anyone "other than the roadbuilders" who wanted them cut down.

"I was absolutely convinced we would have seen for the first time for perhaps 30 years in Auckland, people chained to trees."

The fight to save these pohutukawa trees along Great North Road. Photo / Dean Purcell
The fight to save these pohutukawa trees along Great North Road. Photo / Dean Purcell

During yesterday's open session in what Dr Levy noted was ironically his board's Kauri Room, Mr Chambers drew gasps from the public gallery by saying a petition of 1475 signatures was among 54 submissions to the planning commissioners ruled invalid by Auckland Council because of an incorrect reference number.

Although the Waitemata board has agreed to the trees being trimmed, by a maximum of 30 per cent of their canopy to provide room to raise and enlarge the St Lukes Rd bridge over the Northwestern Motorway to cope with extra traffic to and from the $1.4 billion Waterview tunnels, he warned the transport directors of difficulty doing even that unless they decided against chopping them down.

"Unfortunately the community have an incredibly low opinion of Auckland Transport," he said.

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Pohutukawa Savers representative Jolisa Gracewood told the meeting it would be terrible if "trees planted by city visionaries nearly a century ago are to be torn by faceless officers and an unelected CCO [council-controlled organisation]".

"They say a city grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they will never sit in," she said. "It stays great when the rest of us look after that legacy."