Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Why hurt the trees?

The RMA (Simplifying and Streamlining) Bill was recently reported back to Parliament.  The original bill was complex and contained a number of amendments to the RMA.  The intention of the part of the Government was to simplify processes and reduce the ability to oppose.
Some of the changes were welcome.  Others could have had a chilling effect on the ability of organisations such as the Resident’s association from making submissions on local development projects.
One of the most concerning provisions is the requirement that all District Plans remove blanket protection of trees in urban areas.  If enacted the Waitakere Council would have 2 years to change the local District Plan.  From that date the District Plan will no longer provide blanket protection of trees, instead the only trees that will be protected are those individual trees or groups of trees that are specifically identified in the relevant District Plan. 

This is unusual simplification and streamlining, instead of saying that (for instance) all Kauris over 2 metres high are protected, each individual Kauri will need to be referred to specifically to be protected.
It is important to understand what the current rules are.  In Titirangi up to 20% of a tree’s foliage can be removed in any one year.  Trees under 2 metres can be felled.  An application for a resource consent is otherwise required and an Arbourist’s report is needed.  There is an argument for the process of applying for the removal of a tree needs to be made cheaper and easier but removing all protection is an extreme step to take.

It is difficult to understand where this proposal came from.  Trees are very popular in most quarters.  They are extraordinarily good at sequestering carbon.  They provide habitat for local species.  They provide clean water and fresh air. They keep banks intact and prevent landslips.  They are especially prominent in Titirangi and make Titirangi the wonderful place that it is to live in.  We fell them at our peril.

Mels Barton and I presented submissions to the Environmental Select Committee.  The submissions were, briefly, that “urban environment” was not defined and it was arguable that Titirangi fell within the definition, that the implications of “fell at will” were disastrous, and that the time allowed (then two years) was far too short.

The Committee responded by providing a definition of “urban environment”.  This includes all sections no greater than 4,000 square metres that are connected to a reticulated water supply system and a reticulated sewerage system and on which is a building used for industrial, commercial or residential purposes.  This is an interesting definition as the District Plan can provide blanket protection of trees on a vacant section but not on a built on section.  To clear fell a section one would have to build and then chop.   

This definition means that Titirangi is to be included even though I had thought that they would acknowledge that this was a mistake.

My submission about the implications of the bill was ignored.  Presuming the Bill is enacted then either stability sensitive Titirangi will be in for a rough time or there will be an army of Council officials visiting sections with clipboards noting the location and description of every tree or group of trees.  I guess all the officers facing potential redundancy may have a new career creating lists of trees.

More time was sort of allowed.  The local Council now has until January 1, 2012 to complete the job, after which any tree protection rule is revoked.

The bill will have a devastating effect on the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area Act 2008 as it affects Titirangi and Laingholm.  That Act is designed to preserve the quality of the natural area.  Giving landowners the ability to randomly fell trees will not be conducive to this.
The most perplexing aspect of this change is trying to identify the justification for it.  There has been no excessive uproar about current protection rules although the need to seek consents has caused some grumbles.  There was some tension while the District Plan was being worked out but I have not sensed an overwhelming urge amongst many citizens change the status quo. 

If you are concerned then I suggest you email your local Member of Parliament.  Labour and the Greens have said they will oppose this measure, ACT are fully in support.

I suggest that you consider emailing Tim Groser, who lives in Laingholm, and Paula Bennett, who represents part of the area under threat.  Their emails are

Please note that you only have until September 10 as it is likely the bill will be passed into law by then.

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