GP under fire for Ahipara pōhutukawa chop says he wasn’t told of tree’s significance

The GP at the centre of a storm over a partly cut down pōhutukawa at Ahipara says he wouldn’t have bought the property in the first place if he had known its significance.

Cecil Williams, a doctor in Kaitaia for 27 years, has abandoned his plans to build a home on the site and put the property on the market.

He hoped it would be bought by Te Rarawa, or by the Government on the iwi’s behalf, and turned into a reserve.

He also contacted the building company on Monday morning to tell it the project wasn’t going ahead.

The removal of half the tree last Tuesday sparked outrage in Ahipara.

The pōhutukawa, near the corner of Foreshore Rd and Wharo Way, is subject to a private covenant and is listed as a significant landmark in Te Rarawa’s Ahipara management plan.

It is, however, not included in the Far North District Council’s Schedule of Notable Trees.

Marna Williams, Cecil Williams’ wife, said she sought assurances from the council twice by phone and once in writing that the tree was not protected.

On each occasion she was told it was not listed as a notable tree so pruning was permitted.

She also checked the notable tree register herself and found no listings for Ahipara.
It was only after half the pōhutukawa had been cut down that the council told them to check for private covenants, she said.

Cecil Williams said the tree had deteriorated significantly in recent years. He cut down the half which was near horizontal to make room for a house, believing that could also give the other half a better chance of survival.

Planning rules meant any house would have to be set back from the reserve and the stream, which left limited space for building on the section.

”I didn’t set out maliciously to harm the tree. I wanted to use what I have.”

He believed turning the section into a reserve would be the best outcome for everyone.
”If these guys want to get the land, make it a reserve, plant trees and use it for the people, I’m all in support of that.”

It would also be the best outcome for neighbours.

Under flood zone development rules any house on the site would have to be built on poles 3m off the ground, blocking the view from other sections.

”If I went ahead the iwi will hate me, the neighbours will hate me. I’d rather call it quits.”

Williams said the tree was in the middle of his section about 8m from the reserve boundary.

The pōhutukawa should have been included in the reserve when the land was subdivided, he said.

Council staff, elected members and Te Rarawa representatives met at the site on Friday, with councillor Felicity Foy saying pruning of the tree was permittedbut she doubted the work done would meet the definition of trimming or pruning.

That was followed by a hui called by local hapū on Saturday which spokesman Rueben Taipari said had resolved to occupy the site from next Saturday to “protest desecration of the tree and take back land that was originally a marae site”.

They would also reinstate manawhenua status over the adjoining reserve that he said was wrongly sold and developed.

Williams said he bought the site in 2008 and did not know it was significant or previously subject to a land claim.

Nor did he know land on what is now Wharo Way was donated to the Catholic church and later sold to developers.

It was the site of a marae destroyed by a tsunami in 1910 and the tangi of Toakai, a notable chief.

A law passed by the then National Government in 2009 removed all automatic protection for urban trees in New Zealand.

Since then the best protection for individual trees, especially on private land, is through the Schedule of Notable Trees.

However, that requires the public to nominate each tree for consideration by councils.

Nominations are judged on age, size, character and visibility, cultural or heritage values, or because the tree is critical to the survival of other species.

In 2017 Far North residents were given just one month to nominate trees for the schedule.

Arborists upbeat about tree's survival

A Kaitaia arborist says the Ahipara pōhutukawa should survive being chopped in two but it could struggle for a few seasons.

Andrew Allison, who was called in to inspect the tree, said it was hard to prove hapu claims the tree was 200 years old or more because a log was in the way of counting rings in an exposed section of trunk.

However, it was ”easy to believe” local accounts that it was a sapling in the early 1800s.

Allison said the upper crown had gone into decline on both sides of the tree, which could have been due to a virus.

The most likely cause, however, was damage to its aeration roots caused by horses that were corralled under the tree for a few years.

That had stopped and the tree had received some treatment from an arborist about three years ago, with the tree recently showing signs of rejuvenation on both sides.

He believed the remaining half could survive although it could struggle for the next season or two.

”It’s definitely a heavy blow but I believe it will continue to live.”

Arborist Roger Gale said he was well acquainted with the tree, having been called in by concerned neighbours, with the landowner’s permission, to give it some TLC.

It had been finally starting to improve, he said.

It was ”incredibly difficult” to date a tree like the Ahipara pōhutukawa.

”But it’s an old, old tree.”

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