Hello everyone – here’s a very quick overview of some of what’s happened during the last two days in the Environment Court appeal by the Northcote Point Heritage Protection Society (NPHPS) against SkyPath. While the hearing is still in progress, end-of-day summaries from written notes turns out to be the most appropriate way to convey what happens in court (and to be honest, easier for us to work with than live updates of what can be a quite technical process that often becomes clearer in the rear-view mirror), so we’ll keep this as straightforward and factual as we can.
Firstly, a refresher on how the Environment Court works: before reaching this point, the parties may have engaged in a mediation process (as in this case) which can help clarify the issues (as in this case) but doesn’t necessarily lead to an agreement (ditto). Once the appellant decides to proceed to litigation, the Environment Court reviews all the issues, and the Environment Judge brings a fresh eye to proceedings, being independent from whatever was covered in mediation (see: You, Mediation, and the Environment Court).
In recent weeks, the Court has read reams and reams of documents provided by the applicant (SkyPath), the appellant (NPHPS) and Auckland Council (whose experts generally support the applicant, with only a few minor differences).
The hearing itself started pretty fast, with the Court strongly narrowing things down to concentrate mainly on planning / legal issues and traffic aspects, and paring down the wide array of experts available to speak. The presiding judge (Judge Newhook) and commissioners also made a site visit to assess the environment under discussion – the undercroft of the Harbour Bridge at Northcote and its immediate environs.
By the end of Day 1, the Court had already indicated it expects to be finished by Wednesday – or at least sooner than the 5 days allocated for the hearing.
[NB that doesn’t mean we’ll know the result on Wednesday.]
[UPDATED, Wednesday 2 November: SURPRISE TWIST – WE DID!]
In brief, the NPHPS is objecting to SkyPath from two angles:
1) Firstly, the NPHPS argues that the potential impact of SkyPath on the immediate environment at the Northcote end is such that it shouldn’t be consented. Which is to say, they believe parking issues and the increased numbers of people walking, cycling and driving through the neighbourhood are serious enough to rule out SkyPath altogether… unless avoided or mitigated by conditions.
2) So, they argue, if SkyPath is to go ahead, on top of any other limitations to the design and operation, public use should be restricted at the Northcote end, by
- limiting entry to between 6am – 7pm (with exit permitted until 10pm), and
- imposing a daily maximum limit of 1440 movements in and out of the Northern landing (NB this number has been revised upwards from earlier proposals, which were in the low hundreds), with trips to be booked online.
The SkyPath team, along with Council, has responded along these lines:
1) The original assessment for resource consent was properly done, and the proposed measures to protect locals against possible negative outcomes are sufficient. Skypath is a walking and cycling facility, and people will be encouraged to walk and cycle to it. Some may choose to drive, but this is no different to other city facilities with limited parking.
2) Moreover, any further constraints – on top of the many conditions that already exist, or have been made as “peace offerings” – would reduce SkyPath’s transport benefits substantially. For example, requiring pre-booking (as requested by the appellant) would be impractical for the average punter just wanting to, you know, “get across”.
Accordingly, much of the focus of the last two days has been on how to manage things if SkyPath becomes hugely successful – and what could be done if that leads to negative outcomes for Northcote Point.
What you might call “congestion pricing”, or a pricing strategy, has been floated as one option for managing numbers at popular times; likewise, communications strategies that encourage people to use walking, biking, or public transport to get to SkyPath, and to prefer the Southern Landing instead of the Northern Landing.
The appellants continue to strongly prefer the idea of imposing user limits.
There’s also debate around a residents’ parking scheme – Auckland Transport stands ready to seriously consider one (and has already consulted on this), but only after SkyPath is open and they can judge effects better. Whereas the appellants are concerned that AT can’t be compelled by a resource consent to implement a parking scheme.
Discussion has circled around the possibility of adding S.128 “review conditions” to the consent… i.e. a wait-and-see approach with teeth, so that if there are adverse effects after SkyPath is open, the applicant can be required to take measures as needed.
The alternative approach, strongly preferred by the appellants, is to have strong restrictive measures in place from the outset (the cap on numbers, limited opening hours, etc).
[We’ll allow ourselves a tiny editorial aside here – in a way, these contrasting approaches represent classic glass half-full/ half-empty world views. Does one hope for the best, and tackle anything else if needed? Or assume the worst to begin with – and adjust that perception as necessary?]
Another big topic (as covered in this article by Tom Dillane) was whether SkyPath now has much lower hurdles to clear than it originally did, thanks to the adoption of the Unitary Plan which allows for walkways and cycleways as a “permitted activity” in all zones. It’s not quite that SkyPath “hangs in the balance” over this issue – after all, the original Commissioners granted consent under the old plans – but this could certainly play a significant role in the outcome, if the Court agrees with the Unitary Plan argument.
Other points of discussion on Day 2:
- the effect of noise, including construction noise. The judge seemed pretty unconcerned with this, noting that when you live in a city, some ongoing construction noise is just part of life.
- the question of who’ll be using the path and when: tourists, daily recreational walkers and weekend bike folk, regular commuters on foot and on wheels… On this point, it’s interesting to note that the NPHPS acknowledges the transport value of SkyPath, and grants that a certain level of use of the Northern Landing would be “tolerable” (although they’d prefer it to land somewhere else), but prefers non-commuter trips to begin and end at the Southern Landing, and for the bulk of recreational/ tourist users not to exit into Northcote Point.
- the issue of the logic and logistics of having constraints at one end but not the other – how would this work in practice? Would people entering from the southern end be required to turn around and come back if the maximum number of exits at the northern end had already been reached? (Alas our observer had to leave before those questions were addressed in full).
- the occasional moment of poignant levity, as when the lawyer for the appellant described the current “low vehicle activity” as a key part of the residential amenity of Princes St. It was observed that although this may be true at street level, there is actually a fair amount of vehicle activity nearby (overhead), which drew this understatement in response: “There’s no denying there is a bit of traffic noise.”
So, there you go, some brief highlights from the first two days. Overall, as far as we can judge, things seem to be going okay – but in the end, we’ll have to wait for the Court to make its determination over the next days or weeks.
And, as we head off to observe the third and perhaps final day, under the influence of the calm and logical court environment we trust you all to keep things civil in the comments 🙂
Header image: an early 2015 rendering of the Northern Landing, tucked under the Harbour Bridge.