OPINION: Auckland Council Chief Planning Office Chief of Strategy, Megan Tyler, discusses Council’s effort to find a balance between the demand for and provision of helipads across the city.
Over the last year, the council has heard concerns around helipads and helicopter activity from the Waitematā, Waiheke and Aotea / Great Barrier local boards, residents of Waiheke and Aotea mana whenua.
Concerns cover the number of helipads and the noise generated by helicopters, particularly on Waiheke, to the process of how resource consent applications are notified and considered, to whether consent holders are complying with consent conditions, and the protection of iwi sites of significance, especially on Aotea.
We do acknowledge these concerns and, while we are faced with some challenges in responding to them, we are working right now on steps towards finding a balance between these competing interests.
Understanding the rules
It is important to understand the rules for helicopter activity are managed differently for the islands, than for mainland Auckland. The Auckland Unitary Plan sets the rules for the mainland, while the Hauraki Gulf Islands section of the Auckland Council District Plan sets rules for Aotea and Waiheke.
For both plans, the construction of a helipad in a residential area requires a resource consent. In rural areas, a helipad needs a resource consent if it is for private activity that is not related to farming or rural business activity.
What are the challenges?
The first challenge we face is that our authority is limited to consideration of take-offs and landings including noise, number of flights and the visual impacts of helipads. Regulating overflying activity comes under Civil Aviation Authority rules and is mostly limited to the airspace over airports.
Any changes to the Auckland Unitary Plan to make helicopter activity prohibited in residential and coastal areas would need to meet an extremely high legal bar. It would be difficult to justify a blanket prohibition on recreational helicopters in residential areas and there would likely be substantial opposition.
Additionally, placing a moratorium on accepting helipad applications is not provided for in the Resource Management Act, meaning the council cannot lawfully impose this.
Regarding notification of helipad consents, while the Hauraki Gulf Islands District Plan allows the council to consider public or limited notification under special circumstances, the rules state this must be done on a case-by-case basis and not as a blanket approach to all applications, which would be legally indefensible.
However, despite these challenges we are facing, we do have work underway that will help us to better understand a way forward.
We have begun gathering information on helicopter activity in and around the Hauraki Gulf Islands. Our Proactive Compliance department have started a project to obtain and analyse flight log information from helipad resource consent holders on Waiheke where this is a condition of consent. This will help us understand the extent of use of the consented helipads.
In addition to this, we are working with the Civil Aviation Authority to gain an overview of historic and current patterns of helicopter activity across the region. This information will help us to form an evidence base for determining whether the current provisions for helipads need changing.
The Compliance team have also met with Quiet Skies Waiheke who have raised concerns about helicopter use on Waiheke.
Our Resource Consents team have reviewed and refreshed the Helicopter Practice and Guidance Note, which is their guiding document when considering consent applications for helipads; and our Māori Heritage team are working with Aotea mana whenua to identify and protect sites and places of significance on Aotea Great Barrier Island.
Our Compliance staff are working hard right now gathering and analysing flight data. Once that work has been completed, our staff will report the results back to the Planning Committee and evaluate options for going ahead. One of these options could be to prepare a plan change to the Auckland Council District Plan (Hauraki Gulf Islands Section).
This will likely be towards the end of the year, when our planners have completed the bulk of their work on the government’s National Policy Statement on Urban Development (NPS-UD).
Whilst noting the importance of the helicopter issues to these local communities, the NPS-UD work must be our planning department’s primary focus at the moment because it’s a legislative requirement to implement this work within the Government’s given timeframes.
Despite all of the challenges I have mentioned that we face, I do believe we are on our way towards finding a fair balance for all those who are impacted.