Initial blow for Queenstown development

A development near Coronet Peak ski field is deemed too big, too prominent, and too jarring in the landscape. David Williams reports.

It’s promoted as the solution to many problems.

Take an old farm on a mountainside near Queenstown, replace pest pines with natives and plant beech seedlings over large areas. Then nestle in some accommodation, some of which could be bought by struggling local people.

Add to that some new walking and cycle trails and get eco-tourism to pay for the reforestation and facilities management.

The development could make New Zealand a world leader in environmental care and restoration, Treespace Queenstown Ltd founder Queenstowner Adam Smith told the Otago Daily Times in January.

But there are high bars to clear.

The site, Mt Dewar, near Coronet Peak ski field, is rural land and is classified as an outstanding natural landscape – not the obvious choice for such a development. It is former Crown land, with development-restricting consent conditions, and adjoins reserves, although the lower end is close to an urban centre, Arthurs Point. There has also been a general effort by the council and the courts to keep development off prominent slopes.

All of those strands have been pulled together in a crucial planning report, ahead of next month’s hearing before independent commissioners. The report’s writer, senior Queenstown council planner Andrew Woodford, says the development, as proposed, is inappropriate – that its scale and nature will exceed the site’s “development potential”.

“On balance, I am of a view that what has been proposed by the applicant is of a scale greater than that which would or could be appropriately absorbed into the environment.”

That’s surely a blow for Treespace. But Woodford’s report doesn’t close the door entirely to the development proceeding, noting that a smaller development would have a lesser impact. “It is noted, however, that any significant changes to the proposal may require re-notification and further assessment of the application.”

Tweaks, changes, deletion

Treespace initially applied for consent to build 43 cabins, 11 chalets and a lodge, about seven kilometres from central Queenstown. More than 30 submissions to the council opposed the project – although more than 50 supported it.

The first hearing was delayed and the company has made a flurry of changes.

Modifications include deleting one chalet (while retaining a building platform for an amenities building), making some chalets smaller and lower, reducing the lodge’s height, and limiting the height of windows so they’re not as visually prominent. Some construction on Mt Dewar’s front face would be delayed to allow the screening trees to grow.

Woodford – whose judgement relied on expert council reports on landscape, ecology, and engineering – hasn’t been swayed. He repeatedly points to the inappropriate scale of the development, the inability of the landscape to absorb it, and, for many years, the lack of screening by clusters of young beech trees.

The changes do help reduce potential adverse effects, and the development will be reasonably difficult to see after 10-to-15 years. But chimney smoke and vehicle movements remain “significant indicators of domestication” in what is an outstanding natural landscape. Despite the plantings, the development will reduce the landscape’s naturalness and remoteness.

“I consider that the potential scale of the development is at or beyond the threshold for what the site can absorb without causing more than minor adverse effects.” (Deleting some higher-up cabins and chalets might make the development more acceptable, he says.)

“It is important to raise the question of whether the density of planting proposed is sufficiently adequate.” – Andrew Woodford’s report

The potential adverse effects of the development are too great, Woodford writes, changing the character from rural to something more akin to “rural resort” or “rural residential”.

Only 23 cabins are earmarked for residential houses – the rest would be used for visitor accommodation. Indeed, Woodford says visitor accommodation appears to be the predominant activity. That “effectually removes” the potential of those cabins being used for a residential purpose, Woodford says, which means the development can claim only a minimal positive effect from providing housing.

(The Queenstown council planner also raises the spectre of a similar consent application being made, for what appears to be a residential development, that becomes “a default forested resort zone for visitors”.)

The re-introduction of beech forest and removal of wilding conifer trees, paired with the removal of livestock and proposed weed and pest control, are seen as “overwhelmingly” positive moves. But Woodford says the environmental offset of backcountry plantings aren’t great enough to warrant such “intensification” at Mt Dewar.

Woodford also raises questions about the planned reforestation. In total, more than 143,000 seedlings will be planted, across the front face and, out of public view, in the back country.

The back country plantings, on face value, cover a large area of land, Woodford says, but fall well short of expected planting densities in Auckland, where he used to work. To meet Auckland Council’s standards, Treespace would need to plant almost 1.9 million more seedlings.

That’s not an attempt to diminish the proposal, Woodford says, but to highlight that Queenstown council has no set standard. “It is important to raise the question of whether the density of planting proposed is sufficiently adequate over the proposed 400 hectare area.”

Some effects less than minor

There are few concerns in the report about engineering and infrastructure issues, such as water, stormwater, and traffic.

But Woodford worries granting consent could lead to increased urbanisation of the surrounding area. He poses some questions about cumulative effects of approval. If the proposal’s deemed appropriate without modification, is there further scope to develop amongst the proposed trees once they’re established? Or if the proposal’s deemed appropriate after modifications, what protective mechanism can be used to ensure there’s not further development?

He leaves the answers to the commission.

Treespace seeks to cancel a development-restricting condition from an Environment Court-approved consent order. Woodford says the condition should be retained – “unless the commission is of a mind to grant consent to the proposed development”.

Newsroom contacted Treespace’s Smith for comment but received no response by publication deadline. We also didn’t get a response from the Greenslade family, the former owners of Mt Dewar Station who oppose the development.

The consent hearing is set down for three days from September 4, at Queenstown’s Copthorne Hotel.

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

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