West Auckland opening to tourism

By Wayne Thompson

"Thank you Mr Farmer for letting us sleep in your hay."

Ken Turner shows the pencilled message that two German trampers wrote inside the humble barn on his Huia, West Auckland farm.

"They came to walk the Edmund Hillary Trail and asked me where they could stay the night. I put them on top of the hay.

"There is a lack of facilities to stay on the four-day and three-night Hillary Trail. It's an international name that attracts international walkers and it's a 40-minute taxi ride from the airport.

"But if you are walking the trail, it is eight hours' walk from the Arataki visitor centre over the hills to Huia. There are no facilities and you can't sprint back to Titirangi.

"I see tourists regularly and they ask is there somewhere to eat and sleep? My parents have people knocking on their door and another relative gave people dinner."

But the fourth-generation West Aucklander, who also owns a Titirangi car repair business, has plans to offer weary walkers something better than an old hay shed.

Two huts will go up in the middle of the farm's back paddock. The maximum of four people a night who will stay in them will have close up views of the bush and Manukau Harbour.

Their neighbour will be 17,000ha of park.

It is a venture in eco tourism which until recently Mr Turner would have thought impossible to get approval for.

The farm is covered by the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area Act 2008 along with 27,720ha of public and private land, including urban Titirangi and Laingholm and foothills, and western coastal villages.

The act was to protect heritage features from cumulative effects of urban sprawl but Mr Turner said it was used as an excuse to stop entrepreneurial tourism, such as a new homestay or trampers' lodge.

However, Auckland Council has approved Plan Change 36 of the Waitakere District Plan to give effect to the act while managing development to fit in with the character of the area.

Mr Turner said the new policy was to keep a promise of the act - to provide for the social and economic wellbeing of residents of the heritage area.

Part of that aim was to allow small-scale overnight accommodation.

"It's the first step along the right road to allowing people to make some income from their asset," he said.

"It's the first sign of commonsense.

The trees are protected and it's time to have some social and economic progress."

Mr Turner said the policy still restricted the number of homestays and how many people could stay.

This concerned him because of his experience in trying to keep ahead of rising costs of ownership with grazing sheep and cattle on 60ha. For 26 years, he tried to intensify production with the only licensed piggery in the ranges.

"Farming was too small-scale to be cost effective. So, if we are to replace it with eco tourism, we can't squash it down so tightly that it too is not cost efficient," he said.

The act flagged more than 21,000 people living in the heritage area and a desire to provide for their wellbeing, as well as to protect, restore and enhance the heritage features.

Mr Turner noted the act had not prevented the council from using its surplus houses to hire out to tramping groups. Regional park figures since 2008 show camping ground overnight stays grew from 2934 to 6186 and bach stays from 423 to 561 nights booked. Lodges catered for 9338 people.

At Oratia, in the rural eastern foothills, orchardist Roy Sunde picked Plan Change 36 would allow old packing sheds to rate as a worthy option to refurbish and use for a business.

"A lot of folk out here have quirky and good ideas and are dying to show them off but could not afford the rents and travel if they had premises in town.

"If they can make businesses out in their garage or home I don't see a problem."

In the Swanson foothills, John Newick lives on a 4.45ha property with "thousands of trees".

He said his property was one of many that should have the right to be subdivided into one house per hectare because contours of the land allow dwellings to be hidden from view. This was provided for in a 2002 Waitakere City Council structure plan.

But he said the Environment Court was later persuaded to allow only minimal subdivision by "those of the no development, anywhere, anytime persuasion".

His land had poor soil and was not economically viable but it was 1.3km from the railway station.

Mr Newick hoped the Auckland draft Unitary Plan would pick up the original structure plan and honour the spirit of the heritage area act to give equal weight to development against cultural, economic, environmental and social objectives.

Plan Change 36 would still mean residents having to jump through many hoops, such as restrictions on traffic movements, before setting up small-scale businesses.

"I feel sorry for the people who get up at 5am to go to work in other parts of Auckland because they can't get a job in the west."

Environmental tourism was a solution and a good place to start was to develop the Hillary Trail so that it became the Milford Track of the North Island.

Another idea was to offer a gondola ride over the rainforest of the ranges as part of a "Triple Harbour Trailway".

Waitakere Ranges Local Board chairman Denise Yates said public views were being sought on plans for the Swanson section of a proposed 48km walkway over public and private land from Swanson Station to Titirangi Village.

The trail would link communities of the eastern foothills and link to Henderson by the Project Twin Streams trails.

- The Aucklander

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