Queenstown eco-project hearing delayed

The company behind a Queenstown eco-tourism development has postponed a council hearing. David Williams reports.

A controversial plan to redevelop Mt Dewar, about seven kilometres from Queenstown, is still being pursued, despite delays to a council planning hearing.

Treespace Queenstown Ltd, founded by Adam Smith, wants to build a tourist lodge, 43 cabins and 11 chalets in the forested slopes above the tiny town of Arthurs Point, near the Coronet Peak ski area access road. Alongside the development are plans to plant 400 hectares of native beech forest, as well as pest and weed control and trail upgrades. Reforestation will involve planting almost 150,000 beech seedlings over 10 years.

Smith, a property investor and developer who bankrolled the makeover of local bar Sherwood, told Newsroom in January: “What we’re proposing here is re-introducing the natural cloak that was once on the mountain.” But the project pits environmentalists against environmentalists. Opponents worry about more buildings being allowed to crawl up the Wakatipu Basin’s outstanding landscapes.

Treespace proactively asked for its application to be publicly notified and, after more than 90 submissions (see Newsroom’s declaration below) were received, a hearing was set down for early June. But the Queenstown Lakes District Council says that hearing’s been put on hold, at Treespace’s request. “Cancellation charges will apply,” senior communications adviser Rebecca Pitts says.

Smith tells Newsroom that the project’s still active – its experts just need more time to finish their work.

“We have a pretty tight timeframe to produce our evidence, and respond to any, for example, engineering reports or roading reports, and we need more time to do that. It’s as simple as that.”

Pitts says the hearing was postponed on the day an important council report – a so-called section 42A report, containing a planner’s recommendation to independent hearing commissioners – was to be made public. “The report hasn’t been released and won’t be until the application is reactivated.”

Smith says he hasn’t seen the council report. “We asked to defer because we needed to pull together sufficient information for a hearing,” he says. “We’ll be figuring out soon so far as when we’re able to call for a hearing date with council once we work through our internal timeframes and generate the information.”

Possible precedent

Council consultants have disagreed with some findings of Treespace experts.

Landscape architect Helen Mellsop, who reviewed the company’s landscape and visual assessment, said the report “downplayed the significance and duration of visibility” effects.

The proposal might set a precedent, she says, by indicating that significant adverse effects on outstanding natural landscapes (ONL) were acceptable, for a period of 10-15 years, with extensive indigenous revegetation. “It would also indicate that substantial domestication of the ONL was appropriate, as long as it was screened from public view.”

Mellsop agreed that, in the long term, with reforestation, the proposed development, earthworks and roads are likely to be reasonably hard to see. Wilding tree control and native forest restoration are substantial positives, she says.

Ecological consultant Simon Beale commended the reforestation proposal for “significant ecological benefits”. He suggested a detailed monitoring plan for plantings be developed. (Treespace puts plant installation costs at $1.3 million and maintenance, over three years, of $430,000.)

In response to the consultant reports, Treespace has agreed to delay construction for most residential buildings until the trees grow to an average of three metres, with 80 percent survival. The company has also agreed to reduce the height of all chalets – bar one – to a maximum of five metres, except chimneys and gable roofs, and to limit glazing to three metres or less from the ground.

A full-time mountain manager will oversee plant installation and maintenance.

‘Impressive thinking’

Submissions on Treespace’s plan have been mixed.

One of Queenstown’s most prominent environmentalists, Trent Yeo, co-owner of ecotourism company Ziptrek, congratulated the company for its bold vision and creativity. “I am impressed with the depth of thinking, thorough consultant work, and very clear communication of the unusual project.”

Another supporter is Darren Rewi, a local iwi representative and self-employed health and safety consultant, who says Treescape’s values and goals align with Māori cultural aspirations.

The Queenstown Mountain Bike Club, which has about 1000 members, says the current trails on Mt Dewar are too steep for mountain biking. “Upgrades to the Atley and Devils Creek tracks will not only boost their user numbers but will also enable overnight trips in the Atley huts, which is currently an option missing in the Queenstown trail network.

Meanwhile, nearby residents Clive and Shane Manners Wood, say: “Landscapes like Mt Dewar are sacrosanct and should be preserved at all cost.”

Twenty-one members of the Greenslade family, formerly of Mt Dewar, formerly known as Wharehuanui, say in their submission that the scale is far greater and more grandiose than an earlier proposal deemed inappropriate by the Environment Court.

“The ecological benefits do not outweigh the adverse landscape effects,” the submission says. “It will destroy [the] natural setting and famous views with further disfiguring road scarring, addition of visual pollution, glass reflections, smoke, night lighting and other domestication forms.”

DECLARATION: Newsroom journalist Melanie Reid, who owns a property near Mt Dewar, has made a submission opposing Treespace’s project.

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners