Origins and Importance of Esplanade Reserves

Esplanade reserves, esplanade strips and access strips, collectively referred to as 'esplanade areas' in this note, are statutory mechanisms to protect riparian and coastal margins. Riparian margins are strips of land identified along the edges of natural watercourses including streams, lakes and wetlands. The protection of these margins helps to conserve environmental values and provides opportunities for public access and recreational use, as provided for in s6(d) of the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA).

There is wide variability in the application and implementation of esplanade areas by territorial authorities. The intent of this guidance note is to provide information on the purpose of esplanade areas and to assist in developing provisions in district plans.

Origins of esplanade areas

Historically some members of the public have had an expectation of unrestricted access to and along water margins, which is derived from the concept of the Queen's Chain (ie, a 20-metre strip along the edge of major rivers, lakes and the coastline). In reality this understanding is more of an ideal, as full access rights to land along all rivers, lakes and the coast have never been established in law. Access along the coastline and riverbanks currently comprises a piecemeal collection of public strips including reserves, roads and other classes of land in Crown, local authority or private ownership.

The requirement to retain land in public ownership when it is disposed of by the Crown is now found in the 'marginal-strip provisions' of the Conservation Act 1987 and the Conservation Law Reform Act 1990.

Rural subdivision of private land was controlled under the Lands Acts until the Land Subdivision in Counties Act 1946. This Act required a 66-foot strip of land alongside water bodies to be vested in the Crown as reserve, on lots smaller than 10 acres. Until the 1970s there were no esplanade reserve requirements on the subdivision of private land in cities and boroughs, and in counties the requirements did not apply to lots over 10 acres.

Requirements relating to the subdivision of private land, including esplanade reserves, were consolidated in 1979 into a new Part of the Local Government Act 1974 (LGA 1974) but were subsequently repealed by the RMA. Although the RMA introduced provisions regarding the creation of esplanade reserves at the time of subdivision (specifically s77 and s229-237), many of the features of the former LGA 1974 were retained including:

  • the 20-metre reserve width
  • the 8-hectare and 3-metre average width minimum criteria for taking reserves along lakes and rivers, respectively.

The principal changes introduced by the RMA were:

  • the requirement to provide esplanade reserves without compensation from allotments over 4 hectares
  • the ability for territorial authorities to modify the requirements for esplanade reserves through district plans - territorial authority decisions on waivers and reductions previously had to be approved by the Minister of Conservation.

In 1993 esplanade provisions in the RMA were substantially amended to address the onerous impact of the original provisions on land owners. The amendments included the introduction of esplanade strips and access strips, and removal of the requirement to provide esplanade reserves without compensation from allotments over 4 hectares.

In defining the purpose of esplanade areas under the RMA, concepts including the preservation of conservation values and the provision of public access and recreational use were borrowed from existing legislation including the Conservation Act 1987, Conservation Law Reform Act 1990 and Reserves Act 1977.

Why esplanade areas are important

Esplanade areas are important for several reasons. They can:

  • provide public access to and along rivers, lakes and the coast
  • enable public recreational use of the esplanade area (where this is compatible with conservation values)
  • contribute to the management of natural hazards (eg, stream bank and coastal margin erosion, flooding)
  • protect the natural character of coastal and riparian margins
  • protect and enhance aquatic habitats and riparian ecosystems and help to improve water quality
  • provide for the relationship of Maori with their taonga (eg, protection of wahi tapu) and protection of protected customary rights (eg, gathering of mahinga kai)

These reasons are highlighted in the RMA under s6 as matters of national importance, and the purposes of esplanade reserves and strips under s229.

The creation of esplanade areas can also contribute to achieving objectives and policies of the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement 2010 (NZCPS), particularly Objective 4 (maintaining and enhancing the public open space qualities and recreation opportunities of the coastal environment). The NZCPS explicitly recognises the role that esplanade reserves and strips have in contributing to public open space needs (policy 18).