Wellington Scoop

Using the rates to fight the ratepayers

There were two reminders last week of the Wellington City Council’s sad habit of using ratepayers’ money to fight the ratepayers.

The first reminder came on Thursday from the Creswick Valley Residents Association. Its members thought their battle was over after they won their case in the High Court which ruled that re-zoning a site at 55-85 Curtis Street from open space/residential to business 2 was illegal because it was not publicly notified. The council had spent $160,000 fighting the residents’ appeal.

“We took them to court and won, but now … we have to fight again to save our valley,” says Sarah Holden, the association’s chairperson, faced with council plans to allow 4500 truckloads of fill to be brought into their valley.

The second reminder came on Friday from David Lee, who recalled that the council spent at least $200,000 on its failed attempt to exclude the public from the resource consent process on North Kumutoto with Variation 11. Part of the case argued by Waterfront Watch in its successful appeal was that a new building proposed for the northernmost Kumutoto site was too large and too high. The court agreed. It ruled that the footprint had to be reduced, and it considered “a permissible height of 22m is appropriate.” (The council’s original plan was for 30m.)

But the council and its favoured developers Willis Bond didn’t give up. Ignoring the court ruling, the council is now supporting a building with a height of 25.7m.

It ought to be salutary for the council and its friends to note the judge’s comment on Waterfront Watch, which he said holds

“…an unspoken but readily discernable view that the council cannot be relied to get it right, and only public opinion and action, litigious or otherwise, has averted poor planning and design outcomes on the waterfront in the past.”

The first legal action by Waterfront Watch was in 2001 when it appealed against the city’s plan to move the Ambulance Building on to Taranaki Wharf. The successful appeal followed months of mediation when the council refused to accept any of its arguments about keeping the heritage building on its original site.

The Environment Court judge ruled that Waterfront Watch had presented a compelling case in terms of heritage and urban design. The council then withdrew its application to move the building. But by then its waterfront company had committed $500,000 of public money fighting its lost cause. It could have saved the money if it had been able to recognise the arguments which were accepted by the judge.

In 2008, Waterfront Watch and the Civic Trust were partners in the appeal against the city’s plan to allow a Hilton Hotel to be built on Queens Wharf. There were concerns about the building’s bulk and size, and its convoluted access. Again, the arguments against the council plan were upheld by the Environment Court.

Again, substantial legal costs could have been avoided had the council been able to listen to what its opponents of the hotel were saying.

Since the council’s defeat over its Hilton plans, development on Queens Wharf seems to come to a standstill. Not, however, on Taranaki Wharf, where the wharewaka was built on the site which had been intended for the ambulance building. But in its eagerness to approve the building, the council breached its own Design Brief, which stated that “the vista from the City-to-Sea bridge will be retained and enhanced. The design will pay special attention to maintaining a strong visual connection between the Civic Centre to Te Papa.”

And now, the council again seems to be intent on getting what it wants, in spite of losing legal battles in the Creswick Valley and on north Kumutoto. Its inability to hear what its ratepayers are telling it is continuing just as strongly as was the case in 2001.