The Minister of Conservation, Eugenie Sage, has stepped in over the Rangihoua-Onetangi Sports Park Reserve, withdrawing her consent for Auckland Council to make leasing decisions for the land and effectively forcing the council to create a reserve management plan.

At the end of November, the Hauraki Gulf Enhancement Society (HGES) was put into liquidation by the courts over unpaid security for costs it was ordered to pay after challenging the Waiheke Golf Club’s lease of the 20-hectare site it has occupied since 1977. The golf club’s original lease for the land ended in 1990 and since then the club has been locked in a regulatory battle to expand the course to 18 holes from the current nine.

The case caught the attention of the conservation minister, who entered the fray in an 8 December letter to Auckland Council chief executive Stephen Town.

“Greater oversight by me of the implementation of the Reserves Act in relation to the Rangihoua reserve would be desirable,” the letter reads.

“In consequence, I advise that I am withdrawing my delegation for the council to exercise my prior approval power under section 54(1) of the Reserves Act in respect of this matter, effective immediately.

“… It is incumbent on the council to prepare a management plan and I would expect the council to begin work on this as soon as possible.”
In the letter, Ms Sage details the issues she has over the council’s management of the reserve. “I am concerned that there is no management plan for the reserve. A draft plan would signal to the public how the council intends to manage the reserve and would enable the public to respond in a meaningful way.”

“I have some concerns whether the [Waihehe} Local Board is able to make decisions on granting leases. Even if it can, neither it nor the council has exercised the prior approval role of the Minister of Conservation under section 54 of the Reserves Act. The lease is not, therefore, in force.

“The biodiversity values of the reserve appear to be high at a regional level and it is not clear to me, or I suspect others, the extent to which these have been considered in progressing the lease.”

Section 54 of the Reserves Act 1977 details a governing body’s (in this case, Auckland Council’s) powers to lease council land to “any person, body, voluntary organisation, or society” but only “with the prior consent of a minister.”

Now that the minister has withdrawn consent for the council to lease the land to the golf club, it will have to draw up a new management plan as soon as possible.

“It’s quite significant; there’s been contention over the development of Rangihoua Onetangi Reserve since the mid 1990s,” local board chairman Paul Walden says.

“Since then as a community we’ve been stuck in this very adversarial process which has actually been quite damaging.

“Fundamentally the golf club occupies part of the land and they have had an aspiration forever to expand, and the community has never really had a chance to consider how it might like to use the reserve which was purchased for community use for a much wider range of uses than just golf.”

He believed the minister’s intervention was “entirely appropriate”.

“This has been in litigation for the last three or four years and I think it’s a very responsible move from the Minister of Conservation to take a personal interest.”

However, Mr Walden’s fellow local board member – and long-time golf club member – Bob Upchurch believes the minister has intervened too quickly.

“It’s happened without any previous consultation, and appears to be a very quick comment … it would have been good for her to have contacted the council or the golf club before she did that,” Mr Upchurch says.

He argues for what he calls a “common sense” approach, which he says should include mediation between Auckland Council, the golf club and community groups that have previously argued against the club’s expansion.

“What it means is that either [the minister] changes her mind or we have to spend probably up to half a million dollars to do a reserve management plan for the park and come up with the same results as we already have.”
With legal proceedings brought by the enhancement society over, and Minister Sage’s recent involvement, the ball is now teed up for the council to draw up the reserve’s first ever management plan in 2018.

It is unknown how long that may take.

“It will change things,” Mr Walden says.

“It will unquestionably result in some change for the golf club, potentially for a modified course. Obviously there’s been a lot of interest from the board and the community around this, so 2018 could finally be the year that we can do something about it.”

• Richard Jones

Subscribe and read Gulf News and Waiheke Weekender Online