Three-part Newsroom series

Newsroom recently published a three-part series penned by Nikki Mandow. We suggest you click through and read them all, as they really tell a story, however we have extracted some key elements (and added a couple of comments about safety to article two and a comment about council action to article three):

Article One: “Helipad fight: 2023 will be crucial, protesters say

  • Waitematā, Waiheke and Aotea Great Barrier local boards, Auckland Central MP Chloë Swarbrick, and Auckland Councillor Mike Lee all support banning private helipads.
  • Protestors from Quiet Sky Waiheke, Quiet Sky Waitematā, plus mana whenua and others on Great Barrier, are fighting on a number of fronts at local and national level: Civil aviation rules, climate change transport policy, noise control, conservation and marine protection.
  • Forest & Bird have written to council to support a change, due to the need to address ecological impacts.
  • But council is going slowly and cautiously, fearing difficulty in justifying prohibition and substantial opposition, with the chief of strategy, Megan Tyler saying: “Any changesto 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“.
  • However, Councillor Mike Lee says “council is not going to be faced with the mass ranks of millionaires marching up Queen St [to protest against a change to the Auckland Unitary Plan putting restrictions on helicopters]…The rules as they stand are serving the interests of this very small minority, and the majority are being penalised by this very small minority…you have this situation where what the community desires is unlawful, and what is lawful, the council officers don’t desire. This has to change.

Article Two: “Rotors over Waiheke, or paradise drowned out

  • In 2019 Waiheke Island had 20 helipads. In March 2022 it was 49. Now it’s over 60 and still growing.
  • Local Board member Robin Tucker bought her home in Ostend seventeen years ago and it was tranquil. Six years ago that started to change as more and more helicopters began to fly over. Now it’s “insane“. She says: “One day we counted 28 flights over my house…This is a loud, disturbing, disruptive noise…It’s so loud, if you are in the garden, you can’t hear yourself speak.”
  • The Hauraki Gulf rules for Waiheke and Aotea/Great Barrier are more lenient than the unitary plan rules. Under the unitary plan it’s a non-complying activity. In the Gulf it’s a restricted discretionary activity (meaning council have, themselves, restricted the limits of their own discretion when processing consents).
  • Neighbours have no warning, there’s no notification and no chance to object (or present information), and most adverse impacts on neighbours are not even considered.
  • There’s been a flurry of applications from people with FOMO (fear of missing out), because they worry council will tighten the rules in future.
  • The chief executive of Island Aviation (and half-owner of Waiheke Island’s Reeve Airfield) Chris Sattler says helicopters are much more noisy than small planes because they can’t glide and so need much more power to keep them up. He says the rules in Auckland are loose by international standards. E.g. in Sydney private helipads are not allowed and New York City is considering banning non-essential helicopter traffic. He can’t understand why so many private helipads are needed, nor why council doesn’t look at the cumulative effects of them all.
  • He is worried about the risks associated with the proliferation of helipads and flights. The airport has banned two pilots in the last four months because they weren’t following proceedures, saying: “That’s a benefit of having an airport – you have safety and monitoring equipment. But when you have people going everywhere, there’s not the same level of scrutiny“.
  • Council has been actively asking the airport to take more helicopters, but they find them too disruptive.
  • The crash on the Gold Coast was mentioned in the article. We, at Quiet Sky Waiheke, would add that the flight rules in use on the Gold Coast (‘VFR’ or Visual Flight Rules) are the same rules that are in use over Waiheke. It means that pilots must communicate with each other and keep a visual look-out for other aircraft. There is no air traffic control and no mandatory use of ADS-B (p16) safety equipment in Waiheke airspace, despite the high volume of traffic coming from multiple directions, to so many separate destinations (helipads), plus significant transiting air traffic, about which the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) says (p11): “risk of a mid-air collision is increased“.
  • The CAA promised to undertake a review of the safety of the airspace in May last year, in response to concerns raised by Quiet Sky Waiheke, and after declining a special use airspace application, but has yet to provide any further information on how that is proceeding. However, the CAA has previously made an assessment of the helicopter sector as presenting an “unacceptable risk to people’s safety and wellbeing” and they routinely brief incoming Ministers for Transport that their only critical safety issue is with helicopters, and that this focus drives their work on a day-to-day basis, with an active work programme that is prioritised over other work (read more).
  • Returning to the Newsroom article, Chris Sattler’s comment that “the more traffic there is, the more likelihood something will happen – it’s just an issue of probability” can be considered alongside previous comments by the former manager of aeronautical services for the CAA, Mike Haines, that “There needs to be a better airspace management tool for Waiheke. It’s definitely time for the CAA to determine if they can make it safer. Currently, Waiheke’s airspace is uncontrolled” and to comments by the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust chief executive Craig Gibbons that because of the growing number of helipads on the island leading to busier skies, it could make it more difficult for aircraft to avoid each other without clear communication, meaning “It may be time to consider making Waiheke a mandatory broadcasting zone…If there’s lots of traffic over the island, and people aren’t announcing their positions it can interfere with us [safely] doing our jobs“.

Article Three: “Stand up to helipad wannabes, council planners told

  • Megan Tyler implied that council is considering not undertaking a plan change with regard to helipad consenting rules.
  • This would mean that council would be in breach of the RMA, which requires council to enact plan changes as soon as practicable to give effect to the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement (NZCPS), which has strict rules requiring no adverse impacts on threatened native species and a precautionary approach. The NZCPS dates from 2010 and council has not given effect to it yet, in 2023.
  • The council’s own helicopter practice and guidance note is unequivocal about the intention of the measure: “This policy sets an extremely high threshold, making clear that no adverse effect is acceptable – regardless of its significance…The noise and aural impact of a helicopter can affect biology in different ways. As such, resource consent applications for helicopter landing areas within a coastal environment should be supported by an assessment against the NZCPS, and supporting expert reporting, including on biodiversity.”
  • Brad Allen (acting manager of central resource consents) is quoted as saying: “Subject to meeting the permitted noise metrics for helipads, and being the only helipad on a site, the Auckland Council District Plan – Hauraki Gulf Islands section (ACDP:HGI) provides a possible pathway for helipad consents as a restricted discretionary activity. This narrows what we can take into consideration when assessing a consent. Where an application is a restricted discretionary activity, consent decisions are only able to consider those matters of discretion specifically identified in the District Plan. For restricted discretionary helipads under the ACDP:HGI, discretion is restricted to: noise, and any visual effects of earthworks or retaining structures. This means that, in relation to the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement (NZCPS), those matters which may be taken into consideration are also limited by the matters of discretion.
  • In effect, council is saying that it can’t apply its practice and guidance note and can’t comply with the NZCPS. As the RMA requires council to do this, they can’t justify further delay, or avoidance, of a plan change to give effect to the NZCPS.
  • Meanwhile, the NZCPS is being taken into account – as it should be – for applications for helipads under the Auckland Unitary Plan. And it appears to be stopping them from proceeding, indicating that council’s failure to do so under the Hauraki Gulf Islands District Plan is having real and substantial negative impacts that should have been stopped already.
  • Another national planning standard, introduced in 2019, tells council to stop using averaging of noise impacts when consenting helipads (they would have to use the actual noise levels and impacts instead). However, Auckland Council’s regional planning manager Warren MacLennan says there’s no urgency on bringing its rules in line with national guidelines: “councils have 10 years to incorporate them into our plans…currently scheduled to be completed as part of a review of the Auckland Unitary Plan, which would also incorporate the current Hauraki Gulf Islands Plan“. The review is currently scheduled to start in 2026, but has been delayed before.
  • Meanwhile, council is supposed to reduce aviation emissions by 50 percent by 2030 under their Transport Emissions Reduction Pathway, but has no actual plans for how to do that.
  • We at Quiet Sky Waiheke have a suggestion: Implement the national rules which have been in place for years; and stop saying it would be illegal to make plan changes to prevent widespread helipad consenting, when it’s actually illegal not to do so.
  • Getting back to the article, Councillor Mike Lee is quoted as saying: “There seems to be a great deal of reluctance by Auckland Council planners to make any meaningful changes to how they manage helicopter landing, sites and the effects of helicopter travel. I don’t know why. They talk about objections, but the only people who would object are millionaires – aspiring people who could afford to have a helicopter landing pad in a residential area. What amazes me is not just the insensitivity of the applicants around peace and enjoyment being ruined for their neighbours, but how mysteriously reluctant council staff are to do anything about it.