Strictly reserve or open it up? Belmont park's future debated

Hutt News (online) | 5 August 2008


The fate of much of Belmont Regional Park — preservation or multiple-use, including wind farms, roads and tourism — is back on the agenda after four years.

There could be big changes ahead in the long-delayed overall regional park system philosophy and management by Greater Wellington Regional Council.

GWRC's Parks, Forests and Utilities Committee last week held hearings on submissions on its proposal to classify Belmont's Waitangirua Farm Block, between Porirua and Hutt City, as a recreation reserve.  Only about a dozen submissions were received.

A number of people want what they believe to be the greater preservation status of 'scenic reserve' applied to Waitangirua, or at least significant parts of it.  Most of the rest of Belmont is recreation reserve.

But no decision could be reached because councillors found there were more unanswered questions about legalities, the intentions of the Reserves Act's provisions, protection levels, access, and which type of reserve would provide what level of protection or use.

The farm, previously owned by Landcorp was bought by the Government for the regional park two years ago after a concerted campaign to keep it from being sold off and developed for housing, led by the Friends of Belmont Regional Park.

GWRC's management plan for the park expired in 2004, and only one public meeting has occurred since then, in late 2006, where GWRC showed a number of potential ideas for the park, including a 60-turbine wind farm, tourism, motorised vehicle access, and limited protection of only significant areas.

Besides the potential wind farm — about half of which could be in the Waitangirua Block — the park has significant natural areas, some of them in that block.  A huge chunk of the park, the Kilmister Block, is owned by Hutt City, which several years ago mooted its sale for housing development.  That was also shouted down.

The character of the park, which is called the crown jewel of parks in an urban area, varies from high, wind swept ridges to deep valleys with native bush, to Waitangirua Block's pastures.  GWRC's stated intention for Waitangirua was to continue farming it and designate as recreation reserve.

The park is also dissected by the proposed Transmission Gully Motorway, which enters through Porirua City Council land and cuts through the northwestern quarter of the Waitangirua Block.

The question of what reserve status is appropriate for the Waitangirua Block is vexed by the nature of the farm.  It contains a number of specific conservation covenanted areas.  TGM would cross one of the covenanted areas.  There are also large areas of hilltops that are geologically ancient 'penneplain', or original basement rock of the New Zealand continent, exposed over aeons.

Both are considered by specialists to be important for conservation and protection from animals, including pests and stock, or potential development for recreation.  The covenants protect a number of endangered plant species as well, but the protection is loose because of fencing problems.

The debate over which type of reserve status would be most appropriate for what purpose also raises questions of why GWRC chose recreation reserve, and what its philosophy and plans for the park are.

We reported over the last two years GWRC ideas that would make Belmont something like an English country park.  Construction roads for a wind farm could increase access for large tour vehicles.

Some submitters, like J Chris Horne, a botanist, believe scenic status will give greater protection for the penneplain, and limit the possibililties for wind turbines.  He said, "I see scenic reserves as mini national parks," [the highest conservation status].

Others, like Friends spokesman Peter Matchem, believe recreation status would provide the greater protection against all possible disruptions.  He stated a stronger view than the Friends have previously taken, that the primary purpose of the creation of the park was preservation and recreation.  The Friends had helped saved Waitangirua, and believe it is vital to preserve as much of the park as possible.

Friends of Maara Roa (the valley above Cannons Creek in Porirua being restored by volunteers) spokesman Sylvia Jenkin, told the committee that protection of the covenanted areas by scenic reserve status was of highest importance.

Councillors argued points of order and asked many questions that were not answered by the officers' reports to the meeting, and for which they did not have answers.

However, one officer did say that scenic reserves were for protection, while recreation reserves were for use.  Scenic reserves also mandate access, but it can be more controlled.

Councillors argued over whether haste was necessary or the reserve decision could wait for more clarification and, said Cr Sally Baber (Wellington) what the financial implications for management plans would be.

Councillors were unclear over why the reserve status was to be decided before the system or Belmont management plans were finalised through a consultation process.  Cr Baber said it was because the plan had to give effect to the reserve status, so the status needed to be set first.

There is no published time line for the management plans.  GWRC is also now operating in a new environment free of some provisions of the former Local Government Act, which ceased on June 31 [sic] [2008].

No drafts of any plans have been made public over the last four years, little is known of them because staff say they have been told not to talk to reporters, and GWRC has been reorganized.

The parks have been removed from the former Landcare Committee and separate status in GWRC.  They are now part of a combined division and committee that includes water supply and utilities.  It is also responsible for wind farm development.

Cr Peter Glensor (Lower Hutt) said the Porirua City Council District Plan Change 7, which also affects the Puketiro-Battle Hill Farm Forest Park area, could affect much of the park's viability for wind farms.  And he thought recreation reserve status would prevent wind turbines too.

The issue goes back to the committee next month [Sept 2008].