Deborah Coddington
Deborah Coddington

The Harassment of Harrington

When Les and Beverley Harrington returned to New Zealand from Brisbane in 1992 they were worth over a million dollars. They'd left this country after the stock market crash and spend several years in Queensland in the property business. With three young children it was time to come home, find a piece of paradise, and establish a new business. That was the dream. After eight years of dealing with the Auckland City Council they are now destitute.

Les Harrington's not a person to rush into things. In his own words, he's "pedantic…I like to have everything done properly." He wanted to build and run a luxury tourist lodge, so he did a tourism business study on Great Barrier Island, in the Hauraki Gulf. In January 1993 he settled on what he describes as the best piece of land in the area for an up-market tourist lodge: right on the coast, it's the only piece of flat land on the island with good shelter and access to water.

"I liaised with the [Auckland City] Council planners, our architect and the Auckland Regional Council," says Harrington. "Even Sandra Lee [now an Alliance Member of Parliament] who was then a councillor said, 'What do we have to do to get this project up and running.' To me it all seemed so positive."

But Les and Beverley were about to encounter the nightmare of their lives. One which would see them almost destroyed in an orchestrated campaign against them by the Auckland City Council and certain individuals on Great Barrier Island who did not want a luxury tourist lodge on an island known for its parochial and anarchic behaviour. Today Les and his family have no money left. They are still living on their property, but "illegally" in an attic above a commercial building. In a chilling echo of what Adrian Chisholm experienced with the Council on Waiheke Island (see The Free Radical July/August) Harrington is suing the Auckland City Council for $1.9 million, having had his property rights breached in the most outrageous and cavalier manner.

The trouble began when Harrington approached Barrier Building Supplies to purchase the bulkier items for his lodge — such as timber. "I'd designed the lodge around a theme, so I'd brought with me from Brisbane about $550,000 worth of materials, from generators to door handles. Obviously it wasn't efficient to bring the bigger stuff over, so I thought I'd get it here. But the prices quoted to me at BBS were an insult, and the quality of his stuff was shocking, so I had no alternative but to purchase the stock elsewhere. Bart Lewis from BB Supplies [since deceased] told me I could suit myself."

Harrington underestimated how small minded New Zealand communities operate. Within the week the manager of Subritzky Shipping, who shipped goods from Auckland to the island, phoned and told him he could no longer operate an account there, though he'd always kept it up to date. "He said if I wanted any goods shipped over I'd have to pay in advance, in the folding stuff, at the Auckland office."

So Harrington approached another shipper to get his goods over to Great Barrier. But then, he says, the Auckland City Council started to show an "unhealthy interest" in what he was doing. "The senior staff would come to me to investigate 'complaints' about my generator being noisy, or my chickens crowing." Harrington felt the council officers were pulling every trick in the book to put obstacles in his way.

The treatment he got from other islanders was, he says, "shocking ... they would go out of their way to hunt me down and give me a hiding."

On one occasion, when officials from the council had been over to Great Barrier inspecting Harrington's property, they were socialising in a local pub. Wayne Bloor, from Barrier Building Supplies came in with his wife, Jill, and they started abusing Les. In front of Adrian Chisholm, Les was knocked unconscious by both Wayne and Jill Bloor. They later pleaded guilty to assault and Wayne Bloor was fined $1000 plus costs.

On another occasion the Harringtons were abused and mocked about their daughter, Hannah, a Downs Syndrome child who is hyperactive and requires 24-hour supervision. Bart Lewis, at one stage, was chairman of the local school committee and Les says they were anonymously tipped off that their children were about to be "got at" at the school.

Harrington was charged an inflated amount — $200 plus GST — to a local carrier to get his goods from the wharf to his property, only a few kilometres distance. Then the carrier, assisted by Wayne Bloor, complained that the goods were too heavy to be lifted by his lifting machine.

"By this time I knew I was in trouble," says Harrington. "I wasn't getting anywhere with my project. I was being targeted when I was doing nothing so I thought I'd hang fire for a while."

Meanwhile, some of the goods stored on site were perishable, such as paint, and others were sitting out in all weathers, getting damaged, so he decided to have a garage sale to get rid of them and get some of his money back After advertising in the local rag, he was visited by the council's building inspector, Greg Amos, who told him he couldn't have a garage sale because he was "selling new paint." Well, as Harrington himself points out, who wants second-hand paint?

Another council officer, Keith Mitchell, accused Harrington of stealing when he'd spent considerable time cleaning up the old wrecks of cars that had been pushed off the road over the bank on the way to his place. He was also accused of stealing wheelie bins. "Okay, these were only little things," says Harrington. "But imagine what it was going to be like when I actually started on my $2.5 million project? They'd have a field day."

At this stage Harrington and his family were living not far from the property, in another house he'd bought. But the crunch came when the Council hired a contractor to dump 400 tonnes of rocks in his stream, upstream from the lodge site where all his materials were stored ready to proceed with the lodge. Harrington, in a personal meeting with council officers Terry Reid and Greg Amos, pointed out that the land would flood if it rained and received a letter saying nobody knew what he was talking about.

Then in March 1995, 14 inches of rain fell overnight and Harrington's piece of paradise was awash. Much of the goods he'd brought out from Australia were washed out to sea. Harrington immediately phoned council and told them not to touch anything on his property — he wanted it exactly as the flood had left it so "an honest appraisal could be obtained."

Within a week council sent a contractor on to the land, without Harrington's knowledge or permission, and excavated 200 cubic metres of material, altering considerably the impact of the flooding. Locals helped themselves to gravel for their driveways — with council permission, they said.

Then in July the Auckland City Council commissioned an engineer's report which recommended that no structures be put across the creek (in other words, no bridges) and that the property be put on a hazard register barring all structures and allowing only a basic rural use. In other words, as Harrington says, "They knee-capped my project…They had copies of my plans so they knew exactly what I had been planning to do."

But hang on. Harrington wasn't stupid when he chose this site — someone else had eyes on it for much the same objective. In December 1994 Harrington received notification that a small hotel, car-park, general store, taxi stand, restaurant, shop and ticketing office were planned for the piece of land he'd bought in 1993. And who was going to develop this project? The Auckland City Council. Now Harrington knew why he was being systematically harassed — the Council wanted him to up and leave the land to them. It helped, of course, that some of the locals also wanted Harrington out — council officers were more than happy to jump to attention when they made petty complaints about Harrington's roosters or power generator.

Once Harrington's property was listed on the hazard register it was basically 'goodnight nurse' so far as any building plans were concerned. On the District Plan, a 'hazard registered' property is forbidden from having on it a "part of any disposal system." So no composting toilet, no port-a-loo — nothing that would make a place habitable. Harrington knew he was stuffed, "because I couldn't comply with the District Plan."

Nevertheless he wrote and phoned council constantly, to try and get the flood plain registration lifted. He was ignored. Meanwhile, he was approached with an offer on the Blackwell Drive house he and his family were living in. He decided to sell that, build a timber and hardware store on the lodge property which would bring in an income, and live with his wife and three children at nearby Tryphena Lodge. "I also thought by selling this house I'd free up some money to sue council for dumping the rocks in the creek and putting the designation on the property," says Harrington.

But the accommodation didn't last. One of the shareholders of Tryphena Lodge, he says, didn't want them there and they were given one week to shift out. It was the middle of winter, they had nowhere to go, and that was when, Harrington says, "things really started turning to custard."

They had no alternative but to move into the attic of the unfinished hardware shop. "I knew there was no sense in applying for consents because they'd never give them to us, so I built a temporary ablutions block with a longdrop. We went up to another local lodge for showers. The atmosphere on the island at this stage was such that I knew if we weren't on site, all the time, someone would drop a match on what I'd built. Council were hassling us all the time about this unfinished building. I was on my own and I couldn't do everything at once. Remember, this is an island where you have to generate your own power and provide your own water — there are only so many hours in the day."

Then the Auckland City Council took Harrington to court for living in a building without consent. Harrington was advised to plead guilty, which he did, but Judge Hubble did give him the chance to present the history of the saga. The judge travelled to Great Barrier, to view the site. Harrington was convicted but not fined, and a significant paragraph of Judge Hubble's notes on sentencing read:

There are a number of issues Mr Harrington has raised here which may have some merit in relation to his criticism of Council. It appears that there have been instances of over officiousness by Council and on some occasions heavy handiness (sic) by some of the officers who have attended occasionally in mass on the island. Those issues can be ironed out in later civil proceedings.

In other words, Harrington would yet have his day in court.

In October 1998 surveyors contracted by the Council returned to Harrington's property on Great Barrier and confirmed that the flood plain designation had been based on "careless figuring." It was later lifted, but too late. Harrington by this time had no money left to build his lodge.

Today Les and Beverley Harrington are still living in the attic on their property with their children. Rudds Watts and Stone, an Auckland law firm, agreed to take his case against the Auckland City Council even though Harrington told them, "I've got no money."

Adrian Chisholm has helped Harrington prepare the documents for the lawyers, and keeps Harrington's spirits up when everything gets too much. One positive thing, says Harrington, is that the attitude of many on Great Barrier Island has changed: "It did used to be a wild west town but it's getting better. People have totally changed towards us and now they are very, very supportive. Some people have actually come up and apologised for the way they treated us."

It's appropriate, in closing, to quote another section from Judge Hubble's sentencing notes:

Mr Harrington went to Great Barrier with his family some years ago, probably to escape bureaucracy and live a peaceful life, but things have not worked out that way.

No "peaceful life" is attainable when government steps outside its legitimate role.

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