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What do the Unitary Plan Overlays actually mean?

Updated: Feb 14

It seems like ages ago, but it hasn’t been that long since Auckland was still split into seven cities/ districts, which all had their own district plans controlling development. Following the creation of Auckland Council, a massive planning exercise was undertaken to look at development of the Auckland region as a whole and how best to provide for development. Importantly this included new planning ‘Overlays’ creating additional restrictions over and above the more usual zoning controls.

While the primary method of organising land in Auckland is dividing areas into zones, one secondary method is by using “overlays”. These overlays apply special controls over land, such as to protect heritage (under a Heritage Overlay). Overlay rules are generally more restrictive than zoning rules and are used to identify special values in specific parts of the region, which the Council and the community most want to retain or protect.

What is an overlay in the Auckland Unitary Plan?

You can view Overlays via the planning maps within the Auckland Unitary Plan. We have a useful blog on how to navigate the Auckland Unitary Plan mapping system which you can access here. But what does being in an overlay mean for you?

There are 26 overlays in the Unitary Plan which are split into the following general categories:

1. Natural resources,

2. Natural heritage,

3. Built heritage and character,

4. Mana whenua,

5. Built environment,

6. Infrastructure.

Each category generally tries to protect or create a certain environmental outcome through additional rules and resource consenting requirements. For example, the demolition of a building in the single house zone is a permitted activity; however, if the site is located within a special character overlay, the demolition requires a resource consent which would be considered against the assessment criteria of the Overlay. A blog on the heritage overlays in the Unitary Plan is coming in the next few weeks so stay tuned!

You should always be aware of the consent requirements of overlays as this may require additional specialist input or assessment.

Hierarchy of Overlays in the AUP

When an Overlay applies to your site there are additional objectives, policies and rules for specific activities. These objectives, policies and rules are in addition to other provisions that might apply, such as Zone rules and Auckland- wide rules (an example of this is earthworks).

You should always be aware of different rules applying; just because something is permitted in the zone, it doesn’t mean that it will be permitted under the Overlay controls.

Important Overlays to be aware of

A planner is a great resource in advising of any risks or additional assessment required when your site is subject to an overlay. It can be tricky to identify what rules apply and when. We have identified below a few important overlays and the consent requirements to be aware of as these tend to pop up quite often throughout the Auckland region:

1. Significant Ecological Area (“SEA”) Overlay: Vegetation removal within this overlay will typically require resource consent, including if it is for the purpose of new buildings and dwellings. Depending on the size of the area to be removed an ecologist may be required to assess potential ecological effects. We recommend that vegetation removal be kept as small as possible in the SEA overlay.

2. Outstanding Natural Feature Overlay: Most buildings, structures or vegetation removal in this overlay will require resource consent. There are also restrictions on types of fencing, forestry or grazing provided for. Additional specialist assessment relating to visual effects may also be required dependent on the scope and scale of works.

3. Outstanding Natural Landscape Overlay and High Natural Character Overlay: Buildings over 50m2 require resource consent[1] and dependent on the sensitivity of the landscape a visual impact assessment may be required. Typically, a restricted discretionary consent would be required and council would assess any buildings against criteria contained in the plan.

4. Notable Tree Overlay: Generally speaking, the removal of the tree, works within the protected root zone or works within the dripline of this feature will most likely require resource consent. Dependent on the size and condition of the tree an arborist assessment may be required.

5. Stormwater Management Area Control (SMAF) Overlay: Development of new or redevelopment of existing impervious areas greater than 50m2 within the overlay will require a restricted discretionary resource consent provided the relevant stormwater management standards are met.

6. Historic heritage Overlay and the Special Character Areas Overlay- Stay tuned for a blog fully dedicated to this overlay!

If your site is subject to an overlay this may change the permitted activity thresholds for earthworks and other general Auckland Wide Controls.

What now?

If your site is subject to an Overlay, there may be a restriction on the development potential for your site. The right development though depends on your specific site and what you want to achieve.

Development is different for every person and every site and needs a unique approach. If you want to know more, get in contact with our friendly team. We provide free upfront, basic preliminary advice and can assist you with deciding what development options are best for you.

You can contact us on or 09 427 9966. We look forward to your call!


As with all our blogs, the information detailed here is general in nature and meant as a preliminary guide only. To the best of our knowledge it is correct the time of publication. This should not be substituted for your own investigations or use of your own professional’s.

© Planning Plus Ltd 2023

[1] Some exclusions for certain types of rural buildings.

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