Auckland Council is proceeding with emergency provisions to start felling 13 pine trees in Auckland's Western Springs tomorrow, despite opposition from locals with the backing of local councillor Mike Lee.
Lee has emailed council chief executive Stephen Town today asking him to instruct staff to respect due process and cease and desist any pre-emptive activity.
Residents have accused the council of flouting its own resource consent process after planning commissioners asked the council to answer questions by this Friday about its application to clearfell all 200 remaining pine trees in a 3.2ha block behind the Western Springs lake, below West View Rd in Grey Lynn.
A council spokesman today said the planned removal of the 13 pine trees would proceed tomorrow.
Without waiting for the commissioners' decision, the council has asked West View Rd residents to evacuate their homes from tomorrow so that 13 pines which are considered to be at immediate risk of falling can be chopped down.
Residents in the three closest houses have been told they can return to their homes at night but need to stay away while the trees are felled between 7.30am and 4.30pm from tomorrow until Friday.
The council said the 13 trees will be removed "under the emergency provision of the unitary plan".
In his email, Lee said the case has moved from the rights and wrongs of removing pines from the reserve "to the council's evident disrespect for due process under the Resource Management Act".
"As the local councillor I strongly object to any pre emptive action by council officers and/or contractors prior to the legal process running its full course.
"Attempting to remove the trees before any decision by the commissioner is indicative of a corporate culture which is damaging the reputation of local government in Auckland. I request you instruct staff to respect due process and cease and desist any pre-emptive activity," Lee said.
The Herald is seeking comment from the council about Lee's email.
Lawyer Deborah Manning, who lives in one of the three houses, said the decision to cut down the 13 trees in the very week when the council is due to reply to the commissioners' questions was an "abuse" of the resource consent process.
"We just seem to have Auckland Council behaving in a very high-handed manner," she said.
The decision to move quickly on the first 13 trees has highlighted the major change that would be involved if the council wins consent to clearfell all 200 pine trees.
It says in its application that the pine trees were planted in the 1920s and are reaching the end of their lives.
About 300 pines have already been removed or died in the past 20 years, and 62 per cent of the remaining 200 "are either dead, have heavily reduced canopies, have sustained damage by fire or are visually displaying poor health".
The remaining forest has now been closed to the public because of the danger of more trees falling down,
Until now, dead and dying trees have been cut down bit by bit and mostly left on site. But the council says the remaining trees are now too weak for arborists to climb safely to cut them individually, so the only option is to clearfell the whole forest in one two-month operation planned for this March and April.
The application includes an 8m-wide access road from the bottom of the site near the lake, a 40m-wide processing area and a 20m-wide landing area.
Native species are growing underneath the thinning old pine trees at Western Springs.
The site will be replanted in native trees. But in the short term, an ecological report says the clearfelling "will result in the damage and destruction of most indigenous vegetation in the sub-canopy and understorey" under the thinning pine forest.
The independent commissioners, who heard evidence last month, have asked the council to explain by this Friday whether there were any other options for removing the pines and protecting the forest, which has been designated a Significant Ecological Area.
Grey Lynn resident Wendy Gray has gathered 755 signatures on a petition asking the council to drop the clearfelling and to manage the forest by "surgical removal of only trees predisposed to failure".
However Waitematā Local Board chairwoman Pippa Coom said the council had budgeted to replant 15,000 native trees as soon as the pine trees are removed.
"We want it to be amazing regenerating bush with great tracks through there and bring back the birds," she said.
She said a West View Rd resident had asked the council to remove a dead pine tree which threatened to fall on their house, and the experts decided to cut down 12 other nearby trees at the same time this week.
"I don't think waiting another month [for the resource consent] would be good," she said.
"If the council is aware of a serious risk, to not act would not be good practice."