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A bird’s-eye view of Sanders Reserve on Auckland’s North Shore. (Image: Archi Banal)
A bird’s-eye view of Sanders Reserve on Auckland’s North Shore. (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyJanuary 18, 2022

Why were thousands of native plants mowed down in an Auckland park?

A bird’s-eye view of Sanders Reserve on Auckland’s North Shore. (Image: Archi Banal)
A bird’s-eye view of Sanders Reserve on Auckland’s North Shore. (Image: Archi Banal)

Native plants destroyed, volunteer labour wasted and thousands of dollars of seedlings frittered away – what went down at Sanders Reserve? Charlotte Muru-Lanning unpacks a ‘series of unfortunate events’.

Sanders Reserve is an idyllic spot in Albany, on Auckland’s North Shore. With a fenced off-leash dog walking area, mountain bike trails, a children’s bike track, a paddock for equestrians, picnic areas and picturesque views of the Waitematā Harbour, it’s popular with locals.

But while most of us were enjoying our summer holidays, thousands of mānuka, karamu, harakeke, kawakawa and other native plants were mowed down at Sanders Reserve. The mowing of the seedlings, planted by volunteers and costing thousands of dollars, sparked outrage in the community.

Upper Harbour Local Board representatives Uzra Casuri Balouch and Nicholas Mayne voted against mowing the trees, but Brian Neeson, Lisa Whyte, Margaret Miles and Anna Atkinson, who make up the rest of the board, voted to get rid of the plants. Many condemned the decision for a perceived waste of resources and volunteer labour, along with the seeming disregard for community engagement in public spaces and climate change action.

Atkinson, who voted to clear the plants, describes the circumstances as a “series of really unfortunate events”. So how did this all happen?

In 2002, the 38-hectare block of land in Albany was bought by North Shore City Council for NZ$3.1 million. Four years later, the management plan for the proposed park was created. Under the Reserves Act, public spaces like Sanders Reserve must have a management plan that sets out the way they should be maintained and developed into the future. Ninety-four public submissions were made on this original plan. The park was finished in 2010.

The view of the Waitematā Harbour from Sanders Reserve (Photo: Auckland Council)

In 2016, a planting plan, including the area that has now been flattened, was put together. Local board member Margaret Miles, who voted in favour of mowing the trees, says this plan for native tree restoration was signed off by a council officer, despite not entirely complying with parts of the management plan that safeguard the views of the harbour and the grassy areas. Miles believes this mistake was the catalyst for what unfolded. 

Deane Tuck, the chair of Sustainable Paremoremo, the volunteer group that organised the plantings, says the “parties involved believed it complied with the 2006 plan” – something that everyone seems to agree on.

The local board approved funding for the trees, but Miles says the planting plan was never seen by the board and would never have been approved without public consultation. “Maybe we needed more details,” she says. Tuck, by contrast, believes there were in fact opportunities for the board to see these plans. 

In 2016, volunteers began planting natives in the gullies and coastal edges around the reserve. Two years later they began planting seedlings in a section under the kiosk area – the “prime spot in the reserve”, says Miles, “not just for views but for open recreation and enjoyment”. 

According to Atkinson, numerous community members had expressed concern in person and via email to different board members that the plants below the kiosk would eventually block views and create safety issues for walkers. Miles says she queried the planting with council staff, but was assured everything was fine. According to Tuck, there has been “down-right refusal” from the board to say how many people objected to the plants. 

In June 2021, a site visit including the local board, Sustainable Paremoremo members and council staff took place. Local board members concluded that the planting was contrary to the management plan. As a result, maintenance and working bees were stopped. Sustainable Paremoremo argued at the time that “judicious pruning would make planting in the area legal”. But, Tuck says, “we did agree that Upper Harbour Local Board had a mandate to decide”. 

Volunteers planting native seedlings at Sanders Reserve (Photo: Conservation Volunteers New Zealand)

In late November, Tuck says he was notified by a board member that the decision on the plants would be made without public engagement and would be finalised in the next meeting. In response, Sustainable Paremoremo created a poll on what should be done and distributed it around volunteer conservation groups. Of the 704 respondents, 93% voted to keep all or most of the plantings.  

At the last board meeting for the year, on December 9, the six local board representatives were given eight options for dealing with the plants (according to the council report, these plants cost $16,813 in total). The options ranged from relocation, to removing only the taller species, to removing all the plants. Council staff recommended the first option, to relocate the taller species that might impinge on views in the future. 

Tuck asked that only the taller plants be removed and time for community consultation. Instead, the board voted four to two to mow the entire area of plants without public consultation. 

Miles says this is because the recommended option wouldn’t comply with objectives set out by the management plan to develop the park in “a generally open, grassed manner with designated ecological restoration areas”.  Atkinson describes the decision as “one of the hardest I’ve ever had to make”, a decision she stresses “no one took lightly”.

Board member Nicholas Mayne, who voted against the removal, says that although he disagrees with the outcome, he respects the decision the local board members made.

On December 17, Sustainable Paremoremo, Upper Harbour Ecology Network and Forest and Bird were advised by the board that the area for removal was marked and they could communicate to the community that seedlings within the area could be removed up until December 25, after which the plants would be destroyed. 

As a last-ditch effort, Tuck asked the council for mowing to be delayed. He believes it was unreasonable for the window to rescue trees to be so short, particularly “straight after a lockdown and right before Christmas”. And, he adds, “in the middle of summer when the trees wouldn’t survive anyway”. He reckons the board should have spent some money communicating to the public to rescue the trees, considering it was so urgent. 

The reason the board moved so quickly to mow the plants was to avoid protest action, says Mayne. Miles refutes this and says community planting groups were told in June that the planting would need to be removed. Tuck of Sustainable Paremoremo says “we weren’t told that”.

The area was mowed over the holiday break, at a reported cost of $14,000. However, Miles says, “the job was carried out as part of the regular mowing contract and it appears that no specialist removal was required”.

The area after being mowed over the Christmas break (Photo: Charmaine Bailie)

The number of plants that were mowed in the end is disputed. While the council report suggested there were more than 13,700 plants, Miles believes in reality there were much fewer. Tuck estimates around 8,000 plants were destroyed.

Later this year, public submissions will open for the management plan covering parks in Upper Harbour. Given this will replace the plan for the reserve made in 2006, Tuck wonders why the decision around the plants couldn’t have been included within that process. 

Tuck believes the way this saga unfolded raises questions around local democracy and community ownership of public spaces, where the preferences of locals who planted trees in the space are dismissed in favour of submissions made 14 years ago. In response, Miles says, “you have to balance all of this with the desires of those who submitted in 2006, who had an expectation that this would be the guiding document”. 

An upside to the events, Mayne says, is that it has reinvigorated the board’s approach to drafting of policy. “Opportunity exists within the review to look at planting opportunities and to partner with communities,” he says. 

As for Tuck, he says “the community is disillusioned”. But going forward, Sustainable Paremoremo has decided to continue to support council efforts at the reserve. “This will happen in spite of the Upper Harbour Local Board actions,” he says, “not because of them.”

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