The Hearings Committee of the Hastings Council once again contends with the issue of best use of the District’s valuable agricultural land. This time in the context of an application to build a retirement village on the outskirts of Havelock North.
I have no brief for or against the proposal. The village proposed by developer John O’Sullivan seems to reflect the best “state of the art” thinking regarding desirable features and amenities for housing for the elderly. But design is not, of course, the issue … the issue is location and need.
The HDC Committee seems to hopscotch all over the map on the crucial issue of location (i.e., land use), instead of making decisions about the use of our valuable land resource consistently within some strategic framework …
- They favor more intense development at the Bridge Pa golf course (only to be overruled by the Environment Court).
- But they block conversion of orchard land off Te Aute Road into lifestyle blocks.
- At the same time, they champion conversion of 30 hectares of Heretaunga Plains land into a sports complex (and wait with fingers crossed for a favorable decision by independent hearings officers).
- And now they sit in judgment of the proposed conversion of a 18 hectare block of orchard land into a retirement village.
We might as well just go to a coin toss, and spare all parties a lot of time, torture and money!
The Committee hears conflicting submissions on matters that might be beyond dispute if the HDC took the trouble to fashion — and then faithfully implement — a coherent strategy for allocating the use of its precious land.
For example, why isn’t there a definitive inventory of plains land, indicating on sound empirical grounds which land is most productive for agricultural use … and which is less so? In three of the illustrations above, opposing parties have made contrary claims about the farming viability of the lands involved. Surely there must be an indisputable way to establish the true productive capacity of our entire land resource once and for all.
For example, why isn’t there a definitive projection of the District’s housing needs, based upon consensus projections of demographic trends? Will our population grow or decline, and which age segments will go which direction? Does Hastings need more housing for retirees, or young families? More upscale single family dwellings, or townhouses and apartments? More rentals, or more homes for purchase? Again, why must we re-debate the basic facts of our demographic profile with every resource consent or plan change?
And given the answers to the first two questions, where then is the optimal placement of any required housing (or other infrastructure)? Where can developers expect to hear a loud and uncompromising NO! at the outset, and where a YES?
The enemy of all advocates of competing land uses is uncertainty. HDC desperately needs a comprehensive land use strategy and plan to reduce that uncertainty.
Until there is one, because land is essentially impossible to recover once built upon, there should be a flat moratorium on converting plains land from agriculture to any other use. Ad hoc decision-making on such conversions must be suspended.
To developers, this is surely a draconian proposal. But the land, if indeed productive, is simply too valuable to be sacrificed without a forward-looking plan. Once (and if) new housing needs have been objectively identified by local government (not developers), then hard choices must be made. The least productive land, objectively identified by local government (not developers), can be allocated for development.
Maybe the retirement village proposed by John O’Sullivan would be idyllic … brilliantly meeting the needs of both its residents and the broader community. But maybe it’s the ideal village in the wrong location. Maybe we don’t need it in the first place.
Or maybe Mr. O’Sullivan will simply be the victim of bad political timing … “We just threw 30 hectares to the sports park, we can’t possibly toss another 18 hectares to a housing development.”
This just seems to be one more case where the HDC — this time through its Hearings Committee — is cobbling together the rules while the game is being played. I say, call a time out, hear from all the stakeholders, validate (or debunk) underlying assumptions about housing needs and land quality, set the rules, and only then resume the game.