It's never pretty when bureaucrats and innovators collide

OPINION: Late last year a Port Chalmers resident got into a spot of bother with the Dunedin City Council. He was building a boat on a land-locked section and living in it while working on it. Council building inspectors claimed the structure was a house and it didn't have a building consent. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (which includes the former Department of Building and Housing) investigated and agreed with the council.

The Building Act specifically excludes "any description of vessel, boat, ferry or craft used in navigation." The owner reasoned that all boats must have been constructed at some time, and most undergo periods of maintenance, where they are out of the water and not actively used in navigation.

The intent to be used in navigation should be legally sufficient. He also noted there is no timeframe for construction. The council could use town planning rules to have a finished boat moved but fortunately there is nothing to prevent hobbyists from working on their own pet projects. It was a clever strategy as he clearly had no intention of ever completing it, and was indeed using it as a surrogate home. 

The Ministry actually accepted his arguments, but pointed out the front door and large windows in the hull rendered the structure unnavigable in the event of completion, and therefore it was not a boat but a building. 

The case reminded me of Ron Julian, a one-time Hamilton resident, and current manager of the Te Puru Holiday Park north of Thames. He has an interesting history with councils. The most recent incident involved an altercation with former Taranaki regional councillor Peter Horton that saw both men charged with assault in April last year. The police eventually withdrew the charges in August.

Previous battles have been more sedate physically, but no less vindictive. Back in 2011, Thames Coromandel District Council hit the Holiday Park with a 1500% rates rise by charging for each camp site separately. Despite this money-grab, nothing was spent on flood control (a core service of councils as required by the Local Government Act 2002) and last January's storm resulted in severe damage to a 2.4km stretch of the main coastal road heading north through Te Puru, which had profound effects for many Coromandel residents.

The origin of the bad blood is connected to caravans at the Holiday Park. Ron had a good idea to relieve us all from the familiar frustration of spending our precious summer break stuck behind a caravan crawling along the narrow winding Coromandel roads. He would allow visitors to leave their caravans at the park year round. During the winter months, the park was usually empty anyway, so the average rent could be kept low. Ron even allowed his regular visitors to become part-owners of the park and let out their caravans to others. It seemed like a good idea.

But as often happens with innovation, it didn't fit the preconceived notions of the bureaucrats, so they tried to quash it. Building inspectors were dispatched to the site and offence notices were issued because the caravans were being used as "permanent batches" and somehow needed building consents. 

Anyone could see that they were being used as caravans in the same old way, they just weren't being moved as often. Is this really a problem? Caravans spend most of their time not being moved. Eleven months of the year, they are usually parked up at the owner's home without interference by officialdom. During a hectic few weeks in summer, instead of one caravan arriving as another leaves, these ones stay put. Why is there a need for intervention? Where is the benefit for citizens, and what was the point of this mindless display of authority?

The dispute ended up in court, with the bureaucrats' lawyers paid for by the deep pockets of the ratepayers. The District Court decided that Julian had failed to obtain building consents (a fact not disputed), but the High Court found in Julian's favour for the obvious reason that the caravans were not buildings. Julian's argument was that caravans are vehicles. Like trailers, not all vehicles need engines, they just need to be movable. There was also no need for a vehicle to be road-legal, and farm machinery is a good example. If a structure is a vehicle, it could only also be considered as a building if it was used for permanent accommodation.

The bureaucrats dragged it into the Court of Appeal, mainly to punish Julian. The basic principle was upheld, but the judges noted that the caravans had some permanent attachments such as awnings and water hoses, that would need disconnecting if the vehicle was to be moved. 

Strangely, various councils took this as a win, most notably Kapiti Coast, which started harassing motor home owners in Paraparumu by misrepresenting the case, showing the bureaucratic bullying culture is widespread.


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