By Frank Newman on 13th October 2013
A decision by the Environment Court has blocked the demolition of an earthquake prone building in Wellington. That has reignited the debate about how much of the past should be preserved and who should bear the cost of protecting items of heritage value.
The Court acknowledged the Harcourts Building on Lambton Quay has “significant seismicity issues” and can’t be rented out but said the building contributed strongly to the “Lambton Quay streetscape”. Having no commercial value did not justify its demolition, the Court said. The building is just 17% compliant with the new building code. It is estimated the likely cost of strengthening the building to the new code would cost about $10m. Upgrading was not commercially viable so the owner applied for a resource consent to demolish the building and redevelop the site. (He had offered to sell the building to the NZ Historical Places Trust for $1 but the offer was declined.)
The consent process has cost the owner $500,000 but he is refusing to spend any more money on what he has described as a lost cause. He will instead cordon off the building and leave it vacant. “It will be demolition by dereliction”, he says, and Wellington’s main street will have an eyesore and an enduring reminder of planning gone wrong.
The essence of the problem appears to be that the costs of protecting the public interest have fallen 100% on private property owners.
If a building does have true heritage value then the NZ Historic Places Trust (or the local council) should either buy it or compensate the owner to the extent that their rights have been depreciated by the public wanting to have an interest in the building. By placing a value on the public benefit someone would have to take a reality check and set priorities on what is worth preserving. Although the Court believed the building contributed strongly to the “Lambton Quay streetscape”, the building itself is hardly something that attracts bus-loads of admiring onlookers. It’s not even very old. It was built in 1928 for an Australian insurance company that unlike the building, has long gone.
A further contributing factor is central government changing the building code rules to impose greater seismic standards (again in the public interest), but offered no relief whatsoever to the building owner (not even a tax deduction on the expenditure). A third contributing factor is the perspective of the Environment Court to ignore economic realities when making its decisions.
In all of the above, someone has made a demand of a property owner but washed their hands of any cost. That’s the problem. They are in effect, taking on the guise of a Robin Hood type thief, stealing from the “rich” landlord and distributing the ill-gotten gains to the poor and needy. But life is not a fairy tale and landowners are not villains.
The same principle applies to heritage trees. For example, according to the Whangarei District Council; “Trees serve as reminders of past generations and their achievements, and provide a sense of continuity and identity for the community. As such, they are a significant component of the heritage and amenity values of the District…The majority of these significant trees are located on private land.”
Private land owners are restricted as to what they are permitted to do with a heritage tree. For example they are able to trim branches but only “by use of secateurs or loppers, (i.e. no handsaws or chainsaws) of branches less than 50.0mm in diameter” and, “Construction or alteration of any structure, excavation of land, or formation of new impervious surfaces is permitted if it does not occur within the drip line of a Heritage Tree.”
Should the landowners wish to do anything that is not permitted Council will require them to apply for a resource consent (there goes a few thousand dollars) and obtain expert assessments (a few more thousands of dollars) from suitable qualified tree specialists, and then there is no certainly the consent will be granted.
Unfortunately Council assumes no costs (it actually benefits by receiving the various consent fees) nor does it accept any liability for falling branches, despite their own glowing benefits to the public of having these trees.
Surely if the public want a stake in someone’s property they should share in the cost and responsibility?