Support for church petition

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Community concern . . . Adding their voices to calls to retain Highgate Presbyterian Church in Maori Hill (pictured) are (from left) heritage expert Richard MacKnight and local residents Gillian Fleming and Barbara Frame. PHOTO: BRENDA HARWOOD

Community concern about the uncertain future of Highgate Presbyterian Church in Maori Hill is gaining momentum, with a recently-launched petition gathering more than 800 signatures.

Parish plans to demolish the nearly 100 year-old church are on hold while an appeal from a parishioner is heard by the Southern Presbytery, and alternative options are explored.

The public campaign to save the church is being led by prominent heritage developer Stephen Macknight and his brother Richard, whose efforts are supported by nearby residents keen to retain the historic local landmark.

Two weeks ago, a group of residents led by Gillian Fleming and Barbara Frame launched a petition opposing the planned demolition, and have since collected more than 800 signatures.

“Public interest is definitely gaining momentum. This is a landmark that means a lot to people, even if they don’t have an association with the church,” Mrs Fleming said.

Historic buildings such as the church had been built with a lot of community support and were appreciated as local treasures, she said.

“You lose your built heritage one building at a time, so it is very important that we do everything we can to save this one.”

Concerned that the parish was making a decision based only on an initial assessment of its earthquake risk, the Macknight brothers recently commissioned a new, detailed seismic assessment of the church building by Dunedin structural engineer Lou Robinson.

He found it was not earthquake-prone or at risk during an earthquake.

“The engineer’s report showed that church building is 80% earthquake compliant, and it would take very little to make it 100%,” Richard Macknight said.

The end gables were the only areas where the church may be vulnerable, and these could be strengthened for about $10,000, he said.

“We have a lot of experience in this area, and it’s not as scary or complicated as people might think.”

Dunedin City Council has also weighed into the issue, with heritage adviser Dr Andrea Farminer keen to offer advice and assistance to the parish.

Dr Farminer said although the church was not on a heritage register, it had “very strong heritage values”.

“It has been a local landmark since it was built in 1920, with the support of the community, and it has become part of the local community fabric.”

Dr Farminer said the updated seismic report showed the church was in better condition than parishioners might believe, and there was funding available in the DCC’s heritage fund to help incentivise retaining the building.

“We feel that the wider congregation may not have all the facts, so our aim is to try and provide information and broader advice from the heritage perspective.”

The city council was quite disappointed with the parish council’s approach, and felt that the church was a community building that deserved to be retained.

“We definitely feel that it should not be demolished and we would like to see a re-think. To that end, we want to engage with the parish council and the congregation,” Dr Farminer said.

Highgate Presbyterian Church minister the Rev Geoffrey Skilton said the church understood there was community interest in the building’s future.

“Unfortunately, we cannot comment further at this time as the matter remains subject to an appeal.

“The planned demolition remains on hold until at least the next congregational meeting, a date for which will be set after the appeal process is complete.”