Urban tree advocates are accusing Auckland Council of favouring developers over the environment after approving the removal of a protected tree on public land.
Dozens of people protesting the decision assembled at the foot of the grand macrocarpa in Avondale, believed to be over 150 years old, at the corner of Ash St and Great North Rd, near where Ockham plans to build its Aroha 117-unit development.
The tree in question is one of just several thousand listed as a "Notable Tree" in the Auckland Unitary Plan, a process developed and advocated for by communities to "protect notable trees and notable groups of trees from danger or destruction resulting from development".
The schedule says such trees are considered to be among "the most significant trees in
"These trees have been specifically identified to ensure that the benefits they provide are retained for future generations."
Ockham plans to build 117 units on the site and says the tree needs to be removed otherwise the development cannot go ahead.
Owner and managing director Mark Todd said any design that kept the tree would reduce the apartment yield, making it not commercially viable nor meet its affordability objectives.
Three other notable trees on site were being kept, he said.
The design was also consistent with objectives of the city's Auckland Plan 2050, which rezoned the area from residential to mixed-use, allowing buildings up to 21m high, Todd said.
The company was granted a resource consent, which went through a non-notified process, in November.
Despite two senior Auckland Council arborists opposing the tree removal, stating the tree was in good health and only required regular maintenance, the independent commissioner decided the street was already "well-treed" and losing the tree would not have "significant visual amenity, landscape or local character effects".
Ockham also agreed to plant 10 mature trees in the Avondale area, in addition to 11 as per resource consent conditions, to offset the loss.
The consent still needed Auckland Council approval, as the owner of the tree, given the majority of it sat on council land.
Expert advice provided to the council said the tree was a "significant component of the green corridor and urban ngahere (forest)".
"Currently the Avondale area has been assessed as low canopy cover (10 per cent to 15 per cent) with very few large trees, thus increasing the valuable role of the macrocarpa in the setting."
The macrocarpa also had a historic connection with the European settlers of the area, where planting exotic trees was commonplace for functional wind reduction and shading.
Despite this, the consent was granted by chief executive Jim Stabback, who had been given delegated authority, this month.
In a statement, he said the decision "has not been taken lightly", and considered "every aspect of the development and the tree's value in making this decision".
The tree required significant work to ensure it remained safe, he said.
"We believe that removing a potentially unsafe tree – and replacing it, over and above the resource consent conditions, with 21 more mature trees across the development site – and with the development contributing 117 residential units to a community crying out for more housing, this is the right decision."
Ockham had also threatened legal action against the council if there was any delay to its building plans.
The Tree Council and Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei had both written to the council urging it to retain the tree.
In a statement the Tree Council said it was "disgusted at the way this public heritage asset on public land has been handled by Auckland Council".
"Clearly the protection offered by scheduling our most important trees in the Unitary Plan is meaningless."
Independent arborist and tree advocate Zane Wedding was one of dozens of people occupying the site on Tuesday morning.
He said he'd received word Ockham had planned to bring forward the planned tree removal from January to today, and so the community had rallied to stop it.
Two people had occupied the mature tree overnight, and there was no site of the developers nor contractors or security by morning.
"They have obviously changed their minds after hearing about this action and strong community opposition," Wedding told the Herald.
He questioned what the point of protections were when the council simply overrode them.
Wedding, who was part of another protest at Canal Rd nearby at the removal of dozens of mature native trees for a development, also said Auckland Council was being hypocritical after saying it couldn't stop trees being removed on private land, yet was approving the same thing on its own land.
"All along the council has been saying it is a central government issue, that its hands are tied because of changes to the Resource Management Act allowing removal of trees on private property.
"Yet here we have a tree that does have local protection, what we thought was the only protection, and yet the council still allows it.
"Our trees simply have no protection."
Wedding said although there were safety issues with the tree, they were the same as any tree, and it simply needed regular maintenance.
"I would have thought given it is one of a select number of protected trees it would be regularly maintained, not just left to conveniently die."
Wedding said the tree was in relatively good health for its age and could easily live hundreds more years, given appropriate maintenance, and urged Ockham to "work with, rather than against, the tree".
Along with environmental benefits - particularly in a climate emergency - Wedding said the tree had historical benefits as one of the last remaining trees from an Irish Methodist homestead from the 1860s.
The development site was originally sold by council urban regeneration agency Panuku to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development (MHUD), and onsold to Ockham (in partnership with Marutūāhu iwi) under the Land for Housing Programme.
The Avondale site is one of Panuku's priority urban regeneration areas.