Demolition of Heritage Buildings
This article discusses recent Environment Court proceedings concerning the demolition of the heritage listed Ashburton Railway Station, and discusses what implications the case may have for owners of heritage buildings in Christchurch.
This case concerned an appeal by Redson Corporation Holdings Limited (Redson), which applied to the Ashburton District Council to demolish the Ashburton Railway Station (the Station), which it owned. Since its purchase in 1988 by Redson, the Station had been utilised as a cafe and tourist retail outlet. However, it had remained vacant since 2003, and was run down and in need of repair.
The Commissioner appointed by the Council declined Redson’s application and Redson appealed that decision to the Environment Court in 2011. In contrast to the original Commissioner decision, the Ashburton District Council advised the Court that it no longer supported declining the resource consent, and considered there were now factors that counted in favour of demolition.
In 2008 the Ashburton Heritage Trust was formed specifically to save the Station from demolition. The Trust had intended to gain funding to purchase the building itself, and undertake restoration works on it.
What did the Court consider?
A range of factors were considered by the Court in determining whether to approve the resource consent to demolish the Station. In particular, the Court had regard to the RMA, the District Plan, and also case law concerning heritage buildings.
The RMA affords protection to historic heritage and recognises the need for protection of historic heritage from inappropriate use and development, the “ethic of stewardship”, and the maintenance and enhancement of amenity values.
The Court found that whilst the Station does not serve any functional purpose, it had value as a heritage piece - both as an interesting building in its own right and as a reminder of the major role that railways have played in Ashburton’s growth and development. However, the Court also found that whilst a restored station could provide high amenity values to the town and enhance the local environment, a deteriorating, rundown version of the same building would be a substantial detraction from those values, and the environment.
In addition, whilst the District Plan recognised the importance of conserving heritage items, it also recognised the need to ensure that people’s ability to develop their properties was not unreasonably restricted. Case law further supported this proposition, making it clear that the ethic of stewardship does not extend to obliging an owner to maintain a heritage building in any circumstances. In addition, the Court noted the not insignificant amount of money that Redson has spent on the property by way of maintenance, insurance, and rates etc.
What was the outcome?
In its August 2011 decision, the Court determined that the issues were too finely balanced to make a decision on whether to approve or decline the resource consent for demolition. Instead, the Court directed that a “working party” of the parties concerned work towards exploring opportunities to find a tenant for the building, and also approach local authorities and heritage protection groups that might provide financial support for the building’s retention.
What has happened since the decision?
In September 2011, the Court was advised that two possible tenants had been found, and the Trust indicated that funds from other trusts and grants may be available to fund restoration works. Redson wanted the Court to approve the consent to demolish the station, albeit deferred to allow the Trust to come up with the necessary funds to purchase and restore the Station. The Court refused to approve the consent, and instead decided to allow the Trust more time to come up with a solution that would both allow preservation of the Station, and enable Redson to dispose of its asset at a reasonable price.
Negotiations continued between the Trust and Redson, but ultimately the Trust was unsuccessful in finding funding. This meant the Court was now compelled to reach a determination.
In its third and final decision the Court recognised the Station’s heritage value to the wider Ashburton District, however, it also recognised the money that Redson was spending on basic maintenance and upkeep of a building that earned no income. As no viable proposal could be found to restore the building, and no “White Knight” had come to the rescue, the Court considered the fine balance it found in its first decision was now tipped in favour of Redson. As such Redson’s appeal was allowed, granting it resource consent to demolish the Station.
How does the decision apply to owners of heritage buildings in Christchurch?
The decision is relevant to heritage building owners in Christchurch that find themselves in the same position as Redson. That is, owning a heritage building that is uneconomical to repair and strengthen to Building Code requirements yet is unable to be tenanted and therefore cannot generate sufficient income to meet outgoings.
With the continued reduction in CERA initiated demolitions occurring, owners of heritage buildings have to comply with provisions of the Christchurch City Plan, as amended by the Blueprint. Demolition of Group 1 and Group 2 listed heritage buildings are treated as non-complying activities, meaning demolition is not an activity that is generally contemplated by the Plan.
The Ashburton Railway Station decision is important as it provides guidance about the relevant considerations that the Council should take into account when considering an application for demolition. As can be seen, the Courts are very reluctant to allow demolition of heritage buildings that are of significant national or regional importance, but may be willing to do so if there is no viable economic alternative.
Disclaimer: This is a brief summary for information purposes only and is not legal advice
Posted on Tuesday 2nd April, 2013 at 09:43 am