Efforts to accommodate Maori spiritual and cultural values in planning decisions have residents of Auckland’s most moneyed street manning the barricades.

The form letter posted to numbers "68 to 110a Paritai Drive" was not well-received by Gilda Kirkpatrick at No. 90, nor most of her well-heeled neighbours.

The April 9 letter from Ngati Whatua Orakei advised some of Auckland's most envied property owners they were sitting on a "Site of Significance to Mana Whenua", to be listed in the unitary plan. The plan "requires consultation with affected iwi to ensure any development respects the cultural values and associations with that site". What rankled Kirkpatrick, and others, was that they'd missed the opportunity to lodge opposing submissions - that deadline had passed 14 months earlier. Any neighbours (or their lawyers) who'd studied the daunting draft of the unitary plan had not recognised the name: Onepu Whakatakataka. No maps pinpointed the site.

Residents of 30 to 40 years' standing had never heard the name used for the point at the street's western end (some knew it as Hobson Pt), where views stretch across Hobson Bay to Mt Eden, to the city, and out to the harbour and gulf.

Kirkpatrick roused the neighbours and, after lawyers raised questions of natural justice, about a dozen were allowed to put late submissions and supporting submissions to the unitary plan hearings panel.

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They were indignant: how could this apply to privately-owned land? The heritage overlay might require homeowners to obtain a "cultural impact assessment" from iwi as part of the resource consent process for certain additions or redevelopment. It could affect property values and the "economic wellbeing" of Paritai Drive residents, a planning consultant engaged by Kirkpatrick claimed.

Several submitters challenged the basis for nominating the area as a site of value. The land had been in residential use for generations and was heavily developed; no physical evidence of Maori occupation remained.

Ngati Whatua's letter says the name translates to "the beach where one slipped, or lost footing". It recalls the time, around 1680, that a Ngati Whatua war party under Kawharu attacked the neighbouring pa, Pokanoa, overlooking Okahu Bay. Several escapees slipped down the cliff to the beach and were caught in an ambush. Ngati Whatua say the area was in use well into the 19th century when leader Apihai Te Kawau used it as a garden.

Gilda Kirkpatrick told the Weekend Herald: "We cannot see why the fact that this single event occurred ... can possibly justify imposing land use constraints on the everyday use of private land away from the cliffs ...

"We do not see that the unitary plan, which is a planning scheme, is the place for events of the past to be recorded."

Onepu Whakatakataka is one of around 70 "sites of value" Ngati Whatua Orakei wants added to the unitary plan's heritage overlay schedule (another, recognising Pokanoa at the other end of Paritai Drive, attracted no opposing submissions).

Around 3600 sites, from Kawau Island to Papakura, were on the initial list when the plan was notified in September 2013, sparking an outcry. The proposed sites of value were preliminary and affected properties within a 200m "buffer zone", pending further assessment by the 17 iwi who claim mana whenua (customary authority) status over parts of Auckland.

Under latest proposals, earthworks fitting certain categories of resource consent will trigger consultation with iwi and, depending on the issues, a cultural impact assessment.

The proposed list has been whittled down to 2900 sites after iwi input and, following developer submissions, the council has proposed reducing the buffer zone to a 50m radius. Though some sites have been deleted, many more are expected to be added in future. The council has budgeted $7.7 million over 10 years to further investigate sites - some may be upgraded to "sites of significance", requiring consultation for most types of development. Other iwi who want sites added to the schedules include Ngati Paoa and the Tamaki collective, representing 13 mana whenua groups.

But no single "site of value" has encountered such deep-pocket resistance as the one on Paritai Drive. Archaeological records show the headland pa was listed in 1961 as "destroyed".

David Lovett, a planning consultant engaged by Kirkpatrick, argued the historical evidence "does not seem to clearly implicate the privately-owned land on Paritai Drive to me, while the presence of a village or gardens does not seem an exceptional enough circumstance to warrant scheduling ... "

For the Farmer family at 72-76 Paritai Drive, archaeologist Rod Clough advised no physical remains of the pa had ever been recorded and no other archaeological sites were recorded along Paritai Drive. Martin Green, legal counsel for Janet Farmer, claimed obligations under the Heritage NZ Pouhere Taonga Act 2014 were "sufficient for archaeological matters" and it seemed unnecessary to duplicate requirements.

Roger Coutts (No 106) wrote: " ... there is no land at Hobson Point which still has any physical vestiges of Ngati Whatua occupation. I am therefore at a loss as to what works on my property might now affect the cultural values and associations of Ngati Whatua."

Such reaction, says Independent Maori Statutory Board chairman David Taipari, exposes the gulf in understanding that still exists between "western" and Maori concepts of planning and property development issues.

Restricting the extent of protected areas to known archaeological sites is "another example of seeking to limit the planning framework to the western view of what is important and the values which should be protected," Taipari says in evidence.

"Archaeological values are not a substitute for cultural values. Mana whenua values and relationships with ancestral lands, waters, sites, wahi tapu and taonga include both tangible and intangible values ... that need to be assessed and provided for.

"The importance and value to mana whenua is not focused on the 'archaeological remnants' themselves but is manifest in the place and locality as wahi tupuna [ancestral places such as maunga], wahi tapu [restricted/sacred sites] or wahi whakahirahira [prized areas]."

"It is the effects on the mana, tapu and mauri [life-force] of physical resources that are important.

"It is what the physical activities represent in the context of these customs and tikanga [protocols] that ... should be recognised and provided for. The traditions and whakapapa of mana whenua ... bind these places to the people, forming part of their identity."

Exactly how these values can be acknowledged can be hard for western minds to grasp, he concedes, "In some cases, small physical changes can have major effects on the spiritual and cultural values of a place."

With big developments, what's wanted is more than a token acknowledgement such as a blessing before earthworks start. He gives examples where engagement between iwi and developers has been beneficial: interpretive measures such as pavement design and waterway features at Sylvia Park, an ancestral site containing historically-important streams; pou figures symbolically holding up the Kopu bridge; palisades and pou at Orakei basin.

Most homeowners have little to fear from a mana whenua heritage overlay, Taipari told the Weekend Herald. Since September 2013 only a minority of consent applications on designated sites have needed a cultural impact assessment. Works such as installing a carport are "unlikely to be an issue. I think people will find over time that their lives will change not one iota. There are many other things in planning that have much greater direct impact."

Iwi want to stop their history turning to dust under bulldozers

Sites of value to mana whenua - it's easy to see their appeal to council planners and iwi. The unitary plan offered "a unique opportunity to address the inadequacies of previous planning regimes in Auckland in relation to the protection of Maori cultural heritage", the Auckland Council stressed in early submissions.

As the Independent Maori Statutory Board and various iwi have since told the hearings panel, that legacy has been devastating and is ongoing. The city's development cut a swathe through the relationship between mana whenua and their cultural heritage: Waterfront reclamations destroying villages; airport construction over urupa (burial grounds); roading; quarrying of maunga; raw sewage into Okahu Bay; then came urbanisation.

Few records were kept and inadequate recognition has continued under the Resource Management Act, with lingering social, economic, cultural and spiritual harm. But this attempt to better cater for Maori cultural and spiritual values within a "western" planning regime focused on the physical has been like pushing a waka uphill.

Only 61 mana whenua sites were identified as "sites of significance" (the highest protection level) in the notified unitary plan, most rolled over from pre-amalgamation plans. Then in September 2013, when 3600 "sites of value to mana whenua" appeared as purple-shaded circles on the unitary plan maps - with an associated consultation regime - reaction from Kawau Island to Papakura ranged from blatant racism to genuine developer frustration over added costs and delays. The rules could require applicants for certain resource consents within the 200m-wide circles to consult with iwi and, in some cases, obtain a cultural impact assessment (CIA).

Horror stories ensued of drawn-out negotiations with multiple iwi, some following different protocols and processes. Developers and homeowners complained of muddled processes and long delays and charges ranging from "less than $1000 to $20,000".

Some planning experts continue to cast cultural impact assessments as a ticket-clipping exercise and a "supplementary and independent regulatory process." They accuse the council of "paralysis" when iwi are slow to respond. Submitters to the unitary plan hearings want time limits on consultation (such as 15 working days to respond and, if one is needed, 15 working days to complete a CIA) and for records to be kept of fees.

Independent Maori Statutory Board chairman David Taipari acknowledges early problems but says after the initial backlash, most applications triggering the process are going smoothly.

The council says of 20,000 consents processed since March 2014, 400 were referred to iwi and just 65 needed a cultural impact assessment. Iwi say the assessments can be as brief as an email, depending on the issues. Both the council and iwi concede the regime was developed on the hoof - there wasn't time to perfect it before the unitary plan was notified. The purple circles are imprecise and information on some sites' cultural importance remains sketchy, relying on oral histories.

"Much more research needs to be undertaken to identify the sites more accurately and then develop a protection mechanism everyone can live with," says Ngati Whatua Orakei deputy chairman Ngarimu Blair.

The plan hearings and mediation have led to concessions, refinements and, it is claimed, process improvements. The council's latest proposals, lodged with the hearings panel last week, reduce the buffer zone around sites of value to 100m (a 50m radius).

Developers remain sceptical. Todd Properties, currently building at Long Bay, Mt Wellington and Ormiston, says it has enjoyed constructive engagement with iwi over the years but since the plan was notified "less positive relations have increased."

Taipari is concerned that the council's proposed amendments weaken recognition of "intangible" values in the rulebook. "The result, in my view, will be a return to past, antiquated practices of dealing with mana whenua values through earthworks protocols and ceremonial input ..."

Mana whenua provisions
• The unitary plan lists 61 "Sites of Significance to mana whenua", the highest layer of protection, where consent is required for most development. They include maunga, pa sites, canoe landing sites, urupa (burial grounds), stonefields and water sources. The council recommends adding 25 new sites.
• Around 2900 sites are currently proposed as "Sites of Value to mana whenua". Under latest proposals, certain earthworks needing resource consent within a 50m radius of these sites may trigger consultation with iwi and, potentially, a cultural impact assessment (CIA).
• A CIA might recommend design changes to reflect the cultural significance of the area to mana whenua.
• Consultation is not mandatory but failing to engage risks a consent being declined.
• In most cases, a CIA will not be needed. Criteria and protocols are still being worked through.