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Tuesday, 28 August 2007

THE UGLY SHOCKER ON THE MATIATIA RIDGELINE

The new house on the ridgeline south of the wharf at Matiatia (89 Nick Johnstone Drive) rides roughshod over every protection in law designed to prevent environmental vandalism, as well as being plain inconsiderate. The covenant on the title, the Resource Management Act, the District Plan, the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Act, common decency, good thinking, good taste and simple morality were all bulldozed into the mud.

That shocking thing is way over the top in every sense, but it is only the start. There will also be a guest facility on the western side, a garage behind it large enough for two tractors and a boat, and a swimming pool in the middle foreground (with shrubs to hide the bulldozed bank in front).

How did that monstrosity happen? A study of all the documentation shows the answer can be given in two ugly words: bureaucratic corruption. And there was nothing to stop it because the Community Board in 2005 was not geared to defend the island against being trashed. It still isn't.

Don Chappell worked his soul out making that hillside glorious. Now it has been vandalised by a planning bureaucrat who did not do his job properly, and who got away with it because the Board was asleep at its post. If I were on the Board I would press it to change its operation so that nasty things like that could not happen (see the posting, 'How the Board Should Operate'). If it refused, I would do it myself.

Whatever pathetic excuses the Board might make, the house is there, it shouldn't be there, and most of us don't want it there. Other houses on that ridgeline show it is perfectly possible to build something that does not violate the landscape. That one chose to.

Sadly, such developments are the thin end of a very thick wedge, because the worse the landscape is made to look the more we will see even worse stuff applied for and approved. That slide into an ever more ruined island must stop. It should have been stopped years ago.

The corruption in this case was shoddy thinking and a gross abuse of bureaucratic power. The town-planning bureaucrats have 'delegated authority', which means that if a resource-consent application is within certain criteria they can handle it themselves without putting it up for public scrutiny. But the fatal flaw in the system is that they are the ones who decide if they are to have the power to process an application themselves. That obviously puts temptation in harm's way. They are trusted to be trustworthy; they are trusted to answer the deciding question honestly; in the Matiatia Monstrosity they betrayed that trust.

The question they must ask to decide if they can process an application under delegated authority is, 'Will the effect on the environment of the proposed development be minor?' Antony Yates, the planner who handled that application, said 'Yes, it will be minor'! The fact that his answer was illegal sticks out like an eyesore on a hilltop, but that is how he gave himself the power to handle the application, and it was hidden from public awareness and scrutiny till it was signed, sealed and delivered. Then, in point after point after point where the house and the associated development broke the law Yates put tick after tick after tick, or N/A, or ignored it.

He said, 'the granting of consent will have a minor effect on the environment. In particular the works will not compromise the amenity of the area as the development is considered to be of a scale complimentary to the surrounding environment', and it is 'consistent with the objective and policies of the Operative District Plan and the sustainable management purpose of the Resource Management Act.' Arrant nonsense!

The consultant, Martin Green, who handled the application on behalf of the owners, John and Cecile Alexander, claimed, with breathtaking audacity, that the house 'recedes into the landscape', it is 'recessive.' Even Yates could not swallow that whole. But he said the outline could be 'softened' with some trees behind the eastern corner. Pohutukawas mainly, and, perhaps, a kauri and a totara. But he failed to take into account the fact that that horror on the hilltop will mostly be seen from below. And that trees planted 18 to 20 metres behind it will have to grow pretty tall before a single leaf will be seen, let alone have any significant effect on the skyline.

But even before the resource-consent process started, the owners ignored the covenant on their title. It stipulated a single-storey building, and demanded that the 'dwelling building and structures are designed in a manner and will be of an appearance sensitive to and aesthetically compatible with the surrounding landscape.' A 412 square-metre, two-level house, a box nearly 30 metres wide and 10 deep, looming above Matiatia and sticking up above a ridge-line that is legally designated significant trampled all that to shreds.

Much of the cladding on the house is copper, which in years to come will turn from brown to green. But that will never remove the dominant, hard-edged bulk of the building. It will be a bit less obtrusive against the sky, but it will never be the pleasant sight on which the law lays great emphasis. Section 7(c) of the Resource Management Act commands everyone involved in handling a consent to have 'particular regard to the maintenance and enhancement of amenity values.' 'Amenity' is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as 'pleasantness (of places, persons, etc.); (plural), pleasant ways.' So the law commands those in authority to keep the pleasantness and make it better--'maintenance and and enhancement of amenity values.' That demand, and a string of others, was blatantly ignored.

On the Council's pathetic checklist, under the brief section heading Conservation & Amenity, there is no detailed mention of s7 of the RMA. There are just five items, and for this application two are marked N/A. The only brief reference to s7 said it was OK (!).

I have designed many things, from forms to systems, from computer software to Websites, from furniture to office layouts, from machinery to office equipment, from houses to cars. One of my favourite sayings is 'Design is thinking made visible.' Whoever designed that eyesore must hate the human race. It is ironic that the bureaucrats who want to dump Plan 201 on Matiatia talk about making a gateway to the island that will attract tourists. Then they approve that repellent thing.

Their contempt for democracy is underlined by the fact that most of the documentation for the Matiatia Monstrosity was not scanned into the Council's computer system, and thus was unavailable for public viewing, till three days after Yates signed it off (his approval was dated 22/12/2005). The first we knew about it was when it began to fester on the hilltop.

There was obviously a cosy relationship between Yates and Green. In the correspondence they address each other by their first names. 'Dear Martin, [wrote Yates] In my opinion the proposed building, although well-designed, is not integrated into the landscape or mitigated against the ridge-line. However I consider that an appropriate landscape mitigation plan would achieve the necessary integration of the building into the site and 'soften' the building against the ridge-line.'

Poor man! He doesn't know the difference between ridge-line and skyline. Nor has he considered the inexorable laws of geometry. His 'mitigation' planting will not be seen from Ocean View Road until it is 12 or more metres high, and it will have to be much higher than that to have any significant effect. From the floor of the valley it will never be seen. It takes forty years for a pohutukawa to reach 7 or so metres.

That cosy relationship is not surprising. Green worked for the Council as a planner for nine years, including on Waiheke. He says he doesn't take on projects that he cannot win.

When the District Plan says a building must not rise more than 4 metres above a significant ridgeline, that means as God left it, not as the owners decide to bulldoze it. It is not open to them to fudge reality with earthworks and thumb their noses at the law. Yates chose not see that; he chose to obey the bare letter of the law not its spirit and clear intent.

The timing of the resource consent is interesting. It happened soon after the Council bought Matiatia. A cynic might say we were being softened up for the mess they want to make in the valley (Plan 201) by approving one on the hilltop. Then what they are planning won't look so bad. 89 Nick Johnstone is the nose of the camel under the edge of the tent. Next comes the whole camel--the horse designed by a committee.

If I were on the Board I would subject every proposal to three tests: 1) Is it necessary and/or good for the island? If not, that's the end of it. 2) If it is, how can it be done in the shortest time and for the smallest amount of money? 3) Always be acutely aware that the Board is spending other people's money and that money is generated from people's lives, so other people's lives are being spent. The Matiatia Monstrosity would have failed the first test, because only pleasant developments are good for the island, so it would never have happened. That ridgeline would not have been trashed.

.......

Footnote: By taking lessons from the architects of old, even that house could be make to look much better. The bulk and the remorseless hard-edged skyline could be broken up and given interest, even beauty. The old architects knew how to turn a hard line into a thing of beauty. That architect, if he knew, chose not to.