By Louise Ternouth of RNZ
Allegations of blackmail have been levelled at the owners of a North Shore property, blocking access to walkers on a popular beach path.
The owners want a heritage status removed, so they can sell the property for what it is worth.
While the dispute rolls on with the Auckland Council, they have erected a fence on the popular Milford to Takapuna walkway - which passes through their property.
The path is also part of the 3000km Te Araroa trail, which runs the length of the country.
The owners’ lawyer believes a common sense agreement can be reached and took the issue to a council committee meeting on Thursday.
But he was met by Mayor Wayne Brown, who was not on the same page.
In 2012 the old bach at 9 Kitchener Rd in Milford was designated heritage category A, meaning it cannot be knocked down or developed.
The new owners have asked council to remove the listing and in exchange they will gift the land required for the walkway to the city.
Until that happens, they have erected a fence blocking access to the public.
Lawyer for the owners, Alex Witten-Hannah, told councillors at the Planning, Environment and Parks Committee that a decision needed to be made urgently.
Witten-Hannah said if the council agreed to a plan change to remove the heritage listing, the fence would come down but Brown was having none of it.
“If you agreed today to initiate the planned change, the fence would be done by the weekend,” Witten-Hannah said.
Brown responded, saying “that’s blackmail”, prompting Witten-Hannah to reply: “it’s not blackmail at all”.
Brown said the owners had not been paying their rates and they should raise the application themselves.
“They’re sitting on several million dollars, which is clearly what they want to get their hands on so raise it yourself, I mean it’s not the sort of behaviour that I approve of, really.”
Witten-Hannah said they could not afford the rates and reminded the mayor they had been letting the public through their property.
A sign on the walkway from Auckland Council said walkers needed to take a detour up about 60 stairs and on to the road before linking back onto the walkway, down another flight of stairs about a block away.
A sign on the walkway from Auckland Council said walkers needed to take a detour up about 60 stairs and on to the road before linking back on to the walkway, down another flight of stairs about a block away.
The detour is not going down well with everyone - many people have been clambering over the rocks that surround the property to reach the other side instead.
Walkers RNZ spoke to said it was not doable for everyone.
“Not at my age no I just come to here and I say ‘oh well, I’m not going any further’,” one woman said.
Another walker said when the rocks were wet it was slippery and dangerous. “I imagine there’s been quite a few people hurt, you do need a bit of agility and strength to get over it.”
One walker said she did not know the walk was closed off until she reached the gate on Thursday, “It’s kind of a shame because it’s a really nice one.”
Another said she was frustrated it had come to this: “It’s really sad that we’ve come to a point of conflict, just hope it’s resolved quickly.”
The Takapuna Residents Association launched a petition for the walkway to re-open, gathering over 7000 signatures last month.
Chairman Steven Salt said they had been waiting on council to make a decision but in the meantime, using the rocks to get through was unsafe.
“The current situation is actually likely to lead to more serious injury, if not a fatality.”
Brown defended the alternative route for the walkway.
“You can walk up some steps - by the look of some of the people that wouldn’t do them any harm - or you can walk around the waterfront... there is no risk-free thing, if we follow this there will be handrails up 90 Mile Beach.”
Council warns about setting precedent
Council advisors warned that agreeing to the land owner’s request and removing the heritage status could set a precedent for others wanting to increase the value of their property.
Independent Māori Statutory Board member Tau Henare was displeased that mana whenua had not been consulted during the process, and wondered why council was dedicating so much effort to this issue in the first place.
“It’s their property you look after it .... we’ve spent four and a half hours on this issue. God forbid we spend four and a half hours on rates relief for poor people out in South Auckland, out in West Auckland.”
Once the Takapuna-Devonport local board has talked to the owners of the Kitchener property, any permanent decisions will have to go back to the council.