Port Hills aerial is part of the big picture
When Princes Dr resident Dallas Woods took her complaint about a radio aerial thrusting into her view to a Nelson City Council public forum, she unleashed a storm of protest from amateur radio hobbyists. Bill Moore takes a look at an issue that goes to the heart of private rights versus public good.
Dallas Woods and Tony Finnigan love the magnificent outlook from their home in the part of Nelson regularly described as having "million-dollar views", so it's hardly a surprise that they weren't impressed when in October a large radio aerial suddenly appeared in the middle of it.
Others might privately lament such a blot. After all, the aerial, big as it is, complies with the city council's regulations, which don't require resource consent or consultation with neighbours provided certain height and size restrictions are followed.
Its owner, Rick Kiessig, took pains to make sure it met all council requirements and spent extra on reducing its impact.
Furthermore, although the 12 by 5-metre antenna sits in the view of the Cut from the couple's upstairs bedroom, it's barely visible from the ground floor.
But Ms Woods, a lawyer who moved to Nelson last year, is not one to fold. In her own words, in Palmerston North she had a 100 per cent success rate "with the council campaigns I commenced, which were usually environmentally based".
In one case, she stopped the council there from turning a park into a golf course, she told a Nelson amateur radio enthusiast in an email explaining that she intended to vigorously pursue a change in the council scheme to require all amateur radio aerials in residential areas to have resource consents.
Having complained about the aerial to council staff and going public with her views at the beginning of the year, she followed through with a presentation to the mayor and councillors in a public forum last week.
With Mr Finnigan sitting beside her, at that meeting on March 14 she showed pictures of the aerial across the road from her home and another in Quebec Rd and questioned the suitability of the council's rules.
"There are ham radio people out there that do consult the neighbours, but unfortunately ours didn't."
She then further injured the feelings of the radio community by suggesting that the network it provides is no longer needed to help with emergencies in today's world of advanced electronic communications.
Few could fail to understand her disappointment at seeing an intrusion into her view.
Ham radio fans take a different view of that, of course. But Ms Woods' attack on radio's worth is what really got them going - and they can point to the Environment Court in their own defence.
In a June 2012 decision, the court backed special recognition for amateur radio, saying that the Tauranga City Council had a duty to provide for it.
The council had been taken to court by the Tauranga Emergency Communications Group and the New Zealand Association of Radio Transmitters, who appealed new controls on radio aerials in the Tauranga City Plan.
The court said the council had to recognise the needs of amateur radio, a duty acknowledged both in international treaties and national documents.
"In our view, the importance of the amateur radio community to the infrastructure of New Zealand is often underestimated. The court recognises that they have a particular role both in times of emergency and in maintaining, in a general sense, international communications."
On the question of size, it said aerials were familiar, scale was "essentially a matter of distance" and they were generally of a lighter build and not as intrusive as network utilities.
"We consider that the key effect is not the view from a distance, which effect we consider to be minimal, but rather the potential effect on adjoining neighbours."
But that had to be balanced against the international and national need to encourage the amateur radio transmission community.
"In that regard, although a very small group, radio amateurs constitute an important part of our community, particularly in times of emergency . . . we do not consider the advent of more modern means of communication as derogating from the importance of this function."
The judgment said it was "good neighbourliness" for amateur radio transmitters to consult their neighbours.
"Nevertheless, we also consider that it would be unfair if the outcome turned upon whether a particular neighbour decided, for whatever reason, to oppose an application . . . we consider that there is no need to justify the application by getting the consent of neighbours, either next door or within a 50-metre radius."
The result of the judgment is that in Tauranga, amateur radio masts are permitted to be 26 metres high, including attached antennas, restricted to one per site, and put up as a permitted activity.
In certain locations - areas of outstanding natural features is one - the antennas become a restricted discretionary activity and the council must have regard to "loss of visual amenity" to neighbours and the neighbourhood when deciding on consent and conditions.
It is much the same in Nelson. Nelson City Council resource consents manager Mandy Bishop said Mr Kiessig's aerial met the council's criteria for erecting radio aerials, cellphone towers, power poles and light standards without the need for a resource consent.
"We assess each application to determine the impacts on people and places and will ask for input from neighbours or the public if the scale of the impact is more than minor."
The council's "landscape overlays" are the most visible ridgelines viewed from the city centre and major roads, identified to protect the backdrop.
"Development in these areas needs to be sympathetic to those landscape features," Ms Bishop said.
In the Tasman District, aerials under 10 metres tall can be erected as of right.
Nelson Amateur Radio club committee member David Scott, who's been involved with ham radio since 1969, said similar conflicts had come up in the past.
"Usually it's one that can be worked out between people. The only real problems we've had is when members have gone ahead and done something without permission.
The club met on Wednesday night and decided to support Mr Kiessig in any way it could, Mr Scott said.
Mr Kiessig, a software architect who came to Nelson from the United States in 2006, said he has done everything required of him, and more.
He told the Nelson Mail that his aerial, which all-up cost around $30,000, was one of "a small handful" in New Zealand with similar functionality. "Those stations, aerials and their operators are considered by some to be national resources, to be cultivated and encouraged."
His was unique in that the antenna was made of translucent fibreglass poles forming a rectangle rather than an array of large aluminium rods. There was no other part of his section where the aerial would function as he needed it to and even if there were, the change would affect other neighbours.
Mr Kiessig said the aerial was barely visible from ground level and could only be seen for a very short stretch of Princes Dr.
"It is completely invisible from the lookout . . . which is where most tourists and locals stop to look at the view or take pictures.
"An objective view of the road clearly shows that natural trees and bushes block much more of the view than my comparatively small aerial."
He said there were only about 300 radio hams in Australia and New Zealand who were as "seriously involved" with long distance communication as he was.
The internet and other methods of modern communication required extensive infrastructure and were actually very fragile. Radio was much more robust in events such as earthquakes and tsunamis.
"In my view, and clearly in the [Environment Court] judge's as well, councils owe it to their communities to support us. Keep in mind that we do what we do totally voluntarily. We are unpaid for operating or training, and we provide all of our own equipment."
Mr Kiessig said the current council rules had severely constrained his choice of where to put the aerial, and what it would look like.
"If I had been allowed to use a taller aerial, I would have. That would have actually reduced the visual impact - being taller makes the antenna appear smaller - while also providing more options about where on my section it could be placed," he said.
Nelson City Council policy and planning portfolio holder Mike Ward said the couple's concern was real and justified.
"The people who built the aerial were quite within their rights, because our resource management plan didn't prohibit it. It doesn't address that issue, and that's something we need to think about."
However, he hoped another rule wouldn't be necessary, Mr Ward said.
The council had to be sympathetic to importance of amateur radio.
"Having said that, it doesn't mean it over-rides all the other concerns of the community, including views. People build in places like that because it is quite a spectacular view."
A "radio ham" is a licensed amateur radio operator who uses a private station to talk to others around the world, using frequencies assigned to the amateur radio service.
They have their own call signs and their activities are covered by international treaty. There are about three million worldwide, 6000 in New Zealand, and the Nelson Amateur Radio club has 70 members in Nelson and Richmond.
While their primary activity is recreational, they continue to have a significant role in emergencies. In recent years radio hams have been officially thanked for their assistance after the Christchurch earthquakes and the December 2011 Nelson floods.
They are proud of their record in offering emergency communication help in New Zealand and around the world, saying that their service has come through when all else has failed.