Might your District Plan restrict GA?

By John Evans

If you have an unconsented airstrip or ‘informal airport’, you attend fly-ins or visit private strips, your farm requires the aerial application of product, or you are training and use airstrips to practise on, the rolling out of new rules/regulations within District Plans will affect you.

District Councils operate somewhat independently of central Government (probably less and less so in the current environment), and the 67 territorial councils within New Zealand each have their own rules, as set out in their District Plan, which has a tenure of ten years. Each council does, however, need to meet Government requirements as laid out in the National Policy Statement (NPS) and the Resource Management Act (RMA).

When District Councils initiate the process to develop each new District Plan, almost inevitably these become more prescriptive – not only because of changes within RMA/NPS, but also because districts change (urban sprawl, population density, population sensitivity/ culture), and because other districts set precedents and Councils seemingly feel the need to follow that lead with additional rules and regulations, irrespective of their existing need.

As an example, I’ll use the Timaru District with its Proposed District Plan (PDP).

In mid-December, myself and most of the private strip owners individually submitted on the proposed restrictions, as detailed in the new District Plan, the ‘PDP’. The Cessna 180/185 Group, Recreational BackCountry Pilots Association, AOPA NZ and SAA also made a joint submission.

The particular point in this PDP that I’d like to bring to your attention is as follows: “GRUZ-R14 PER-3 take offs or landings must not exceed 10 per month; and the airstrip or landing site is setback a minimum of 500m from: any Residential zone; and the notional boundary of a building containing a noise sensitive activity not located on the site of the airstrip or helicopter land site.”

Ten take offs or landings is five flights per month. This severely limits how you can use your airstrip, and hosting a bunch of fellow aviators (more than five in a month) would be prohibited. The agricultural aviation industry has their own set of issues with the proposed plan, and their industry has responded accordingly. That’s a Timaru District Plan issue, you say. Well yes, but you could have said the same thing when the Queenstown Lakes District Council initiated its drive to introduce prohibitions, so it could well be assumed that your district is next!

In the Timaru District, it is unclear what the existing issue is regarding airstrips that the Council is trying to solve. Many private landowners who have airstrips have located them so far from neighbouring properties that those neighbours cannot even hear the aircraft movements, while others have neighbours with whom they maintain a positive relationship and operate with no ill-effect.

I contacted the Timaru District Council planners for clarification on the issue needing to be resolved, the justification for the five movement limit and to discover what, if any, guidelines they’ve been given from Central Government in addition to the NPS and RMA. It is difficult to find the right person to talk to, but the person contacted, who is not directly involved in this rule part, could only say that it was what had been decided was necessary to manage the effects and was in line with other District Council approaches. The only way to get anything more than an anecdotal picture is through an Official Information Act Request.

Next step, Local Government Official Information and Meeting Act Requests (LGOIMA), lodged on January 10 with a statutory response time of 20 working days, with two straightforward requests:

All written communication concerning the formation of GRUZ-R14 PER-3

Evidence supporting implementation of GRUZ-R14 PER-3

At the time of publication they are within their statutory response time.

Of course, we could all apply for resource consents, but at huge bureaucratic cost with questionable benefit, as most of us do not consider our private airstrips to be airparks or airports. A consent would likely limit you in ways you probably wouldn’t know the effects of for some time to come. You might have to record/report movements, pay inspectors to audit, have safety and risk systems in place, who knows? We don’t want to go there, and there should be absolutely no need to do so. What about existing use rights? That’s a tricky question and a little hard to answer, more in Part 2.

The Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) led the way in imposing restrictions, starting in the early 2010s. With the foresight of Jules Tapper, Vance Boyd and others, including AOPA NZ, the QLDC was tackled over the issue. The concern was that a precedent would be set; QLDC was one of the earliest councils to roll out the second generation of district plans, and there was the very real concern that other territorial councils would simply follow their lead. With an investment of tens of thousands of dollars and volunteer hours, significant inroads were made. Refer to Spring 2019 Approach, which summarised their efforts. The QLDC Plan, while fairly restrictive, is in many aspects far less restrictive than what the Timaru District Council is proposing. For example, QLDC (outside the Wakatipu Basin) allows for two flights per day, five flights per week or twelve flights per month; 275m set back; and AOPA NZ is able to host six fly-ins per year with unlimited movements, a right exercised for our January Greenstone Station Fly-in.

Will we, in our fight with Timaru District Council, need to lodge an appeal with the Environment Court, enlist a courtappointed mediator and have a decision ratified by a judge of the Environment Court, all to play out in the next 5-10 years? Well, if we need to, we will.

In the next issue we will report on the response to our submissions once they have been heard, and will provide a sum-mary of the content released under the Local Government Official Information and Meeting Act Request. It’s unknown territory. Best case, the Council removes any reference to limiting private airstrips – otherwise we’ll have to fight to retain our existing rights without the imposition of unjustified restrictions.

In the meantime, if this issue concerns you, then be proactive when your council puts out its PDP for consultation. Look it up. Rally around your district’s airstrip users/owners to ensure everyone is informed and personally submits. It may help to set up an email group so information can be disseminated. And also, and just as important, fly neighbourly.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2023 edition of Approach Magazine, the dedicated magazine of AOPA NZ, which is published quarterly.