In a polite Herne Bay kind of way, locals are gearing up for a battle royale with retailing millionaire Rod Duke over his plans for a helipad on a neighbourhood beach. Maria Slade went down to hang out.
Karen Sims’ dog Lily isn’t the typical Herne Bay resident.
The tan bitzer of uncertain provenance wouldn’t hurt a flea, but other residents walking their designer dogs around the suburb’s leafy streets have been known to cross the road when they see her coming, Sims chuckles.
Former current affairs journalist Sims and her television executive husband have lived in their Hamilton Road house for 27 years. The meticulously renovated grey and white villa with its hydrangeas and box hedges is worth a small fortune now, but when the couple and their three-year-old twins first moved in it was an ordinary neighbourhood of young families, albeit middle class ones, she says. The mega million-dollar mansions that now occupy Herne Bay’s picturesque clifftops hadn’t been conceived of.
During all those years they’ve been taking kids down to Sentinel Beach at the bottom of their hill – first their own children, and now the next generation.
Sims has a pleasant and understated manner. “It’s the dearest wee beach, they’ve put in those built-in deckchairs and things, it’s so sweet,” she says.“We’re always keeping it clean, we’ll pick up any rubbish.
“I’ve got a friend who paddle boards down there and he says that little beach is like a taonga. It’s just deeply disquieting to think it’s not going to be like that any more.”
The prim people of Herne Bay may use the word taonga to describe one of the few decent swimming bays on this side of central Auckland, but the battle over Briscoes boss Rod Duke’s attempts to turn his boatshed into a helipad will be no Bastion Point-style sit in. Behind the politeness there is a well-funded resolve that will see the matter played out through as many council planning meetings and court hearings as necessary.
The neighbourhood has galvanised, and Sims and her husband are two of many who have contributed to a fighting fund being amassed by the Herne Bay Residents Association.
It’s not about noise or envy of the nouveau riche. The locals are no strangers to the whoop-whoop-whoop of helicopters, with three in the streets leading down to the waterfront including the machine which lands regularly at property investor Ben Cook’s $24m home next to Sentinel Beach. Personally Sims is inured to the noise, and if Rod Duke wants to put a helipad on his roof, well, he can go for gold as far as she and many of her neighbours are concerned.
“But it’s actually right on the beach. I mean, it’s unbelievable that he thinks he can just use the beach as his private plaything.
“I can’t fathom how it’s got to this point, that anyone would think it’s a good idea to have a helicopter landing on a beach.
“What do you do, you’ve got your 18-month-old granddaughter down there and a helicopter comes in?”
Robyn Bennett and John Kelly’s ground floor apartment may open out onto the pohutukawa-fringed cliff adjacent to Sentinel Beach, but it’s more city pied-à-terre than waterfront condo.
The retired dentists downsized 13 years ago and moved to Herne Bay to be near the water. Robyn swims every day without fail, and has been known to windsurf.
Swimmers have already had run-ins with boats barging supplies to the two massive residential building projects above the historic boatshed – Rod Duke’s, and the site next door – so imagine the danger from a helicopter swooping in, they say.
The couple has met Duke. Robyn Bennett introduced herself during an interval at the Auckland High Court late last year, when they went along in support of the appeal against his consent for the heli/shed.
“Everyone was polite. That’s the good thing about New Zealand.
“I said, ‘I don’t understand how you could do this with so much opposition’. And he said, ‘oh well, I’ve got so many stores and it means I can visit more of them in a day’.
“I said, ‘what about the neighbours?’, and he said, ‘neighbours come and neighbours go’.”
The much-reported line that he wanted the helipad to get to his golf games more quickly wasn’t true, he informed her.
Whatever their neighbours’ reasons for requiring air transport from their homes, the couple is not as sanguine about the intrusion as other locals. “It’s different for someone up on Sentinel Road, but we’re out on this point. Ben Cook’s is very, very noisy for us,” John Kelly says. “Also the smell, the fumes. The helicopter sits there idling while they unload and load up.”
The pair have also contributed to the Herne Bay Residents Association’s fund.
“It gets dismissed in people’s minds because they see the huge houses and the wealth in this suburb, and think, ‘actually who cares? Oh dear, poor rich people’,” Robyn says.
“This is a matter of principle, not just for our beach. If this happens there’s nothing to stop it happening all over the city.
“The neighbours of that boatshed are everybody in Auckland, because it’s on public land.
“It’s such a privilege to have a boatshed, the public has been so generous in allowing it, to then abuse it…,” she trails off.
I’m late for meeting John Ray and Don Mathieson. Every second property in the streets surrounding the quaint beach appears to be under renovation, and that combined with the construction traffic around the Dukes’ and the next door site means I have to park miles up the road.
Mathieson is a computer consultant with a dry wit who co-chairs the Herne Bay Residents Association “in between phone calls”. He’s lived in the area for 20-plus years. “I had a break, went to Parnell for a while, didn’t like it, too many Porsches.”
Retired lawyer John Ray and his wife have lived near Sentinel Beach for 30 years. He went down the day Duke had helicopters conducting test flights to determine noise levels in support of his bid to legitimise the now illegal heli/shed. The downdraft had the water billowing, Ray says. “I was standing in the far corner at the so-called boatshed and I could hardly stand up.”
He has also run into Duke up at the court. “I made some comment about our grandkids swimming out here, and he said we should get a helicopter to test it with the kids in there. Great.”
There has been a good response to the residents’ association’s calls for help, and it has the means to fight the Dukes through the courts if necessary, Mathieson says. “Being where we are, we have the benefit of having a lot of quite well respected advisers on legal matters around this.” This includes retired QC and resource management expert Paul Cavanagh, no less.
The neighbourhood is in a holding pattern while it sees what happens with the Dukes’ latest dual application to the council for a compliance certificate and parallel bid for a helipad. If the matter does end up back in the High Court there will be “quite a lot more money” forthcoming, he says.
By building a structure that has now been declared illegal, Duke has abandoned his existing use rights for the old boatshed, the residents argue.
Ray and Mathieson debate whether they can describe the attempt to turn the 1940s boatshed into a helicopter pad as “theft”. They settle on the word “occupy”. The fundamental concern is that there are umpteen boatsheds along that coastline, and if one person gets away with such a plan other owners of the legacy structures are going to start getting some pretty impressive offers, Mathieson says.
Not everyone in Herne Bay is well-heeled, he says. “We bought here when it wasn’t very expensive. We couldn’t afford to buy here now.
“On our street on rubbish day there’s thousands of rubbish bins that come out. The majority of them are little one or two bedroom units. They’re retired people, young people with a family that are renting, and those are the people that are affected more by this beach.
“The wealthy people, they can afford to fly to Fiji for their holidays.”
Duke has never engaged with the locals, he says. “He doesn’t care about the beach, all he wants to do is get out of here real quick with his helicopter.”