Shifting sands

BY RAEWYN PEART
Last updated 05:00 16/08/2009
sand
Photo: Michael Bradley
Castles in the Sand author Raewyn Peart in Auckland.
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Photo: Waikato Times
Developments such as Pauanui Waterways make the coastline go further than nature ever intended.

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SOME OF my earliest childhood memories are of time spent at our family bach. A few years before I was born, my father bought a rough, sloping coastal section on the south-eastern fringe of Auckland. It had few services, but glorious views of the Hauraki Gulf. During weekends and holidays he gradually built the simple fibrolite-clad structure which was to become a cherished part of our family history.

OPINION: Accommodation in the bach was spartan. The kids were crammed into creaky bunks in one small bedroom while my parents tried to sleep on a saggy mattress next door. Rusty coloured water trickled from the small corrugated iron tank which drained the roof. The sanitary arrangements consisted of a smelly "long drop" dug out back, a place that filled me with dread after dark.

There were many magical moments at the bach. I can remember getting up at dawn and rowing out over the tranquil sea to catch fresh snapper for breakfast. I can remember feasting on the rich-red summer plums which dripped from trees sprouting through the cracked clay soil. And I can remember hours spent lazily on the beach, exposing salty skin to the warm summer sun, blissfully unaware of the dangers of skin cancer.

Then the arrival of boys prompted a change to our summer holiday plans. My three older sisters had reached their teenage years and were attracting what my father considered to be "undesirable types". Rather than spend the summer worrying that his daughters were being led astray, he decided to take up boating. A family holiday at sea had one key advantage in his view: if my sisters attracted undesirable attention, the anchor could simply be raised and the family relocated to a more isolated spot.

So began the glorious summers when our family cruised the Hauraki Gulf and beyond. We took to sea in a small, and then slightly larger, plywood trimaran which my father had rebuilt in the garage of our Hamilton home. The accommodation on these flimsy craft was never adequate. Many nights were spent ashore cuddled up in sleeping bags next to the dying embers of our cooking fire. During the day we roamed the large stretches of farmland fringing the coast. We explored rock pools, caves and abandoned huts. It never occurred to us that as the land was privately owned we might be excluded from it.

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But time moved on, my sisters and I left home, and the era of family holidays was over. My parents separated and the family bach was sold. By then I had married and we had moved overseas.

IT WAS the birth of our daughter Tanya that reconnected me with the New Zealand coast. I was living in South Africa at the time, where the high level of crime discouraged visits to isolated areas of the coast. As Tanya grew older, I felt a strong urge to recreate for our daughter the magical and carefree coastal holidays, lived close to nature, that I had experienced as a child.

But moving back to New Zealand in 2001 came as something of a shock. The once sleepy settlement where our former family bach was located had become a fully fledged suburb of Auckland. It was now resplendent with modern homes, cafes and a service station. As I travelled further afield, reacquainting myself with favourite places, I found that numerous houses had starting appearing along large stretches of once wild rural coastline. Few accessible beaches within a couple hours' drive of Auckland were left undeveloped. The new buildings were not small baches nestled behind the beach, but large "in your face" houses perched on ridges and headlands. There was also the beginnings of Gold Coast-style development with the arrival of canal housing estates and high-rise coastal apartment blocks.

One area where the changes seemed particularly marked was on the Tutukaka coast. I remember visiting Tutukaka during our family boating holidays and being impressed by the stunning natural harbour fringed with small sandy bays and rolling farmland. But now the inner harbour was completely transformed. There were reclamations, a large marina and a mock-Mediterranean style hotel stretching along the head of the bay. Houses had appeared along the ridgelines overlooking the harbour, turning what had once been a sleepy rural enclave into a brash, sprawling residential suburb.

So what was happening and why? Every so often a news item would appear expressing concern about the impacts of coastal development, the loss of camping grounds and public access to the coastline and the soaring prices of coastal property. But these lacked in-depth analysis of what was driving the changes. And, even more concerning, nothing was being done. There was no response by government. What kind of future were we creating for our kids?

So I decided to write a book which would delve into the issue more deeply. I wanted to fully understand the special relationship that New Zealanders have with the coast, what it means to us and how our actions have transformed that part of the country we love so much. I wanted to identify how remaining special areas of coastline could be preserved. But, more importantly, I wanted to raise public awareness and support for action so that we could tackle the problem before it was too late.

One of the interesting things I found during my research was that it was not primarily foreigners who were driving coastal development but baby boomers like me. During the 1990s, many of us reached the stage where we were looking to buy coastal property. We were financially secure and wanting to create a better lifestyle for ourselves and our families. We drove the biggest boom in coastal holiday home development that the country has seen.

The current lull in the coastal property market will be only temporary. What is scary is that there is another large population bulge coming up the baby boomers' children. Over the next decade or so the leading edge of this cohort will be looking to buy family baches, at the very time many of their parents' generation are moving into coastal retirement homes. So the pressure on our coast is going to get much stronger. This is not an issue which will go away.

Much but not all of the development which is occurring around our coastline is poorly located and designed. Councils find it extraordinarily difficult to stand up to well-resourced developers who can afford to outgun the council through the legal processes. Ratepayers don't like to see their rates spent on legal fees, so the overwhelming tendency has been for councils to allow development. They often attach conditions designed to head off the worst environmental effects, but this approach fails miserably when it comes to addressing the cumulative effects of numerous developments. This focus on case-by-case mitigation, rather than the big picture, is one of the main reasons why we are seeing so much coastal sprawl.

Our current system also allows developers to promote changes to the rules through the private plan change procedure. So, for example, where the district plan has zoned an area of the coast to keep it rural, a developer can come along with a proposal to change the rules to allow high-density urban development. Such changes have been sought to facilitate controversial developments at Ocean Beach in Hastings and further north at Te Arai, and were also in prospect to enable the development of the very fragile Ngunguru Spit. Some of these proposals have been withdrawn as a result of the economic downturn, but they will inevitably reappear as market conditions improve.

The foreshore and seabed debate has highlighted the close attachment that New Zealanders have with the coast. The ability to access and enjoy our fantastic coastline and marine area is seen as a national birthright. But we have failed to put in place an effective mechanism to ensure that this strong public interest is reflected in day-to-day management decisions.

In Castles in the Sand I argue for the establishment of a New Zealand Coastal Commission. This would be an independent body comprised of people with high public standing who would be tasked with protecting the strong national interest in the coast.

Currently, few parts of the coast are off-limits for development outside small areas of reserve land. A key role of the Coastal Commission would be to identify those areas of the coast which should never be developed. These would be areas of wild undeveloped coastline which are highly valued by New Zealanders, our "Heritage Coasts". They would remain in private ownership but would be placed under stronger management control. Resource consents in these areas could be measured against a tougher set of rules, and be determined by the Coastal Commission in the first instance rather than councils. The commission would also identify areas of the coast that are suitable for development whether it be larger lifestyle blocks or new towns.

The Coastal Commission would have a range of other functions. These could include overseeing the development of the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement to provide clear direction to councils on how the coast should be managed. The commission could prepare Coastal Design Guidelines to illustrate the key elements of best practice coastal development. It could also act as an advocate for good coastal outcomes and advise the government on any needed changes to the coastal legislative and policy frameworks.

The work of the commission could be supported by a New Zealand Coastal Trust, a body focused on implementing voluntary mechanisms to achieve coastal protection. This could include covenanting land against future subdivision, buying up coastal land for reserves and supporting coastal restoration initiatives. The trust could promote the provision of public access, walking and biking trails, camping grounds and other recreational opportunities along the coastline.

The new National-led government is embarking on an ambitious reform agenda for the environment, including the establishment of an Environmental Protection Authority. The Ministerial Review Panel on the foreshore and seabed legislation has recommended a total rethink on how we manage the "wet bits" of our coast. The pressure for coastal development has temporarily receded. Now is the time to put in place an enduring management framework to protect that part of New Zealand we all love.

Raewyn Peart has more than 15 years' experience in environmental law and policy. Castles in the Sand is published by Craig Potton Publishing and is available in book shops or from www.eds.org.nz, rrp $49.95.

- Sunday Star Times

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