A story of David and Goliath

Earlier this year, WCC organised a public hearing about Wellington Airport’plans to expand over the Miramar golf course. Whether you are a keen golfer or not, the fact the airport thought a plane park was the best use of this land, in a climate and housing crisis, was shocking. Greed, unlike the land where the airport is located, does not know any limit, so the airport is trying to push through its expansion.

In November 2020, an independent panel was appointed to listen to the airport, to the city council experts, and to the community. The panel said climate change couldn’t be a consideration, and later, despite everyone opposing but the airport, recommended it should go ahead with its plan. The airport, unsurprisingly, accepted the recommendation. As a “Requiring Authority” (another legal term the airport is known as), it didn’t need any approval anyway, but at least it would have made them feel better, and given the appearance that they had consulted the community (never mind that the most impacted community, on the streets alongside the golf course, never received the shadow of a leaflet).

What is the airport expansion made of?

All that would be a done deal if a collection of community groups (including Guardians of the Bays) hadn’t appealed this decision. But what is the decision made of? It has two sides.

The first one relates to the main site land designation. The airport would like to have it consolidated. However, if this was to happen, through the magic of legal mechanics, the Air Noise Boundary (ANB) would become an airport “owned” piece of legislation. The ANB maps how much noise can be received at a given distance from the airport for a given period of time. In a pretty brochure, it looks like this:

Wellington Airport Noise Boundary

At the moment, the ANB is managed in the District Plan, and when the latter is being reviewed (like it is at the moment), the community can have a say. If the airport becomes the beholder of the ANB, it will have the right to change it at will, without any community input whatsoever. That’s right: the airport would be able to bring more noise to anywhere it sees fit and yet, remain legally compliant.

The second aspect of the decision is the airport changing the golf course land designation from “recreational activity” to “airport operation”. The District Plan, the document used by Wellingtonians to shape the city they live in, states the golf course is a buffer to protect the nearby suburbs from being exposed to too much noise. By changing the land designation, the airport overwrites the District Plan to fulfil its masterplan. And the funny part is that … it can (by the magic of being a Requiring Authority)! Without that change, the airport won’t be able to lay tar over the green hills, create a new bulge in the ANB going East, and bring planes, their noise and air pollution, under the windows of Strathmore residents.

Surrounding communities are opposing the expansion

In this grotesque situation, a few community groups are opposing the airport. Against the airport’s infinite budget, with legal experts working during business hours, volunteers fight with shoestring finance late in the night at the expense of their families and wellbeing, trying to get their heads around immensely complex legal topics. This is a modern David versus Goliath situation: the airport has time and money, and the community groups, drowning in stress and anxiety, are trying to fight for what is right:

  • That in a climate emergency, paving the way for more emissions coming out of the airport is borderline criminal;
  • That crushing residents’ wellbeing by hosing their homes with more noise is immoral;
  • That in a housing crisis and a city that is going to become denser, deteriorating the air quality is abject.

This fight is deeply unbalanced and the fair views pushed by the community are de facto, shut from the airport’s plans. This opposition, fought with sticks and stones, is yet the strongest around to carry the legitimate concerns of the community for its wellbeing, its existence, today and for future generations. The airport, comfortably sitting on its bags of dollars, doesn’t budge. Its execs say to whoever is interested that these views are naive, or that, at the end of the day, you can’t make an omelette without breaking (Eastern) eggs (pun intended).

It would be good for the airport crew to remember it has been defeated in the past, many times, by the community. It would be good for the community and abroad to be loud about how naive the airport is to expand in the age of COVID and climate change. One way to show support and make a difference is also to donate to the Guardians of the Bays. This is this group that turned around last the airport on the runway extension. This time again, they are at the helm of the opposition. Let’s hope their fight is successful.