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‘Sacred’ pohutukawa trees turn into a menace

Flagstaff Team

Residents at apartments at the north end of Takapuna Beach are frustrated by council inaction over a “sacred grove” of massive protected pohutukawa trees that has become unsafe. For the past 14 years, residents of the Mon Desir apartments concerned for their safety have been asking the council to prune the trees. 

In that time, about six have fallen over, including five on apartment grounds, says resident Terry Smith. While the council has done occasional emergency work, regular maintenance hasn’t been done, he says. 

When three five-storey trees, possibly 400 years old, fell in storms in early 2017, residents had to shell out $60,000 to get them removed. The last straw came in June last year, when Auckland Council closed a boardwalk that runs in front of the Mon Desir and nearby The Sands apartments, because of rotten boards and danger from the pohutukawa that are part of the Sacred Grove/Te Uru Tapu. 

The boardwalk was installed to give walkers a dry option at high tide. In December, council arborists and consultants briefed a Devonport-Takapuna Local Board meeting, attended by residents, on a management plan for the Sacred Grove and surrounding area, part of a project scheduled to run to June. 

One unhappy resident at The Sands, Graeme Markwick, describes the briefing from the council’s landscape architects, Opus, as inconclusive. Markwick wants council arborists to regularly prune, or even sculpt, the trees and remove dangerous boughs, mainly for safety, but also for the health of the trees and to allow more light into the apartments. 

“There should be a better balance of the needs of the trees and the public who use the walkway,” Markwick says. 

He says elderly people have moved out of The Sands because the trees keep light from their apartments. He and other apartment residents also want the boardwalk repaired or replaced. 

Eighteen of the trees are scheduled notable trees in the Unitary Plan, as well as being in a significant ecological area, so any work on them requires a resource consent, Markwick says. A report by Opus is due to go to a local board workshop in late March or early April. 

Local board chairperson George Wood says the main reason the boardwalk was closed is the trees are unsafe, but detritus from the trees has also rotted much of it so it would need to be rebuilt. 

Residents were invited to submit to the management plan by 25 February. Wood says mana whenua had to be involved, because of the significance of the trees to Maori. Auckland Council provided a list of 12 iwi who attended two recent hui to discuss the pohutukawa grove, which extends from the north end of the beach to Thorne Bay. 

Historically, travellers passing the sacred trees would place floral tributes at the foot or hang garments in the branches, as a mark of respect to ensure safe travels. Mon Desir property management chair Fay Freeman says residents met to discuss a submission to Opus’ plan. 

“They want to preserve the trees and make sure they are well maintained and don’t present a risk. It’s not about getting rid of the trees,” Freeman says. Residents want a risk-assessment and appropriate work done, with the stone “steps to nowhere” preserved, the boardwalk upgraded and reopened and lighting installed in the grove.

The council has occasionally pruned trees where it identified defects, and did so recently, says its head of operational management and maintenance, Agnes McCormack. She says council arborists and Opus are developing a management plan that will include pruning and other measures to ensure the safety of the public and longevity of the trees.

This article originally appeared in the March 15 edition of the Rangitoto Observer. Download PDF.