Week in Review

Green light for Queenstown development

The prospect of large-scale ecological restoration sways commissioners considering a new subdivision near Queenstown. David Williams reports

A controversial development near Queenstown has been approved, thanks largely to the planned reforestation of a prominent landscape about seven kilometres from the tourist resort. But several other important factors helped get the project across the line – including a drive to ensure the developers stand by their promises.

Treespace Queenstown wants to build a 20-bed lodge, 53 cabins and chalets – a mix of tourist accommodation and residential units – and an amenities building at the 1768-hectare Mt Dewar Station, near Arthurs Point, near the Shotover River and its jet-boat-plied canyons.

It would be a significant change for the former Crown-owned farm, now split by a conservation area. But it would eventually be screened by mountain beech plantings – the environmental centrepiece of the project that would return 400 hectares of the station to pre-human forest cover, and replace withered wilding pines on the front face, above the turn-off to nearby Coronet Peak skifield.

In a decision released yesterday afternoon, after a delayed hearing held finally in September, council-appointed commissioners granted consent for Treespace’s development.

Some opponents suggested the project is little more than a ruse to justify commercial development. Given Queenstown’s development pressures, that argument’s understandable, commissioners say, but they disagree.

It’s not unreasonable for the cost of reforestation and ecological restoration to be funded by development elsewhere on the property, the decision says. (Pest trapping is part of planned ecological restoration, and more public access is suggested.)

Commissioners disagree with a council planning report that concluded the development is inappropriate – that its scale and nature will exceed the site’s ability to absorb it. Indeed, the main issue of contention was landscape effects, and whether such a development is appropriate at a site classified as an outstanding natural landscape.

The commissioners acknowledge that until the beech trees grow – all 143,720 of them, planted over 10 years – there’ll be “moderate” visual effects. “We consider that this is acceptable in the interim given the benefits which will come from the extensive reforestation … and the associated ecological restoration,” the decision says.

“We are satisfied from the evidence that the ecological enhancement programme proposal Mount Dewar is realistic and achievable, and is a project of major potential benefit for this district in the long-term.”

“We consider the council has erred to the extent that it has failed to adequately consider the ecological benefits of this proposal.” – Commissioners Robert Nixon, Jane Taylor, and Wendy Baker

The consent decision doesn’t just disagree with Queenstown council’s planner, Andrew Woodford, it takes him to task.

“We consider the council has erred to the extent that it has failed to adequately consider the ecological benefits of this proposal. While it has acknowledged that there are benefits, we feel it has largely assessed this proposal as ‘just another landscape case’.”

The council’s landscape expert, Helen Mellsop, argued Mt Dewar was prized for its remote character, and some of the proposed units ought to be deleted to reduce the development’s scale to a more appropriate level.

However, the commissioners say the area to be built on is neither remote nor possessing a high degree of wilderness. It’s already modified and sits next to a residential area.

Yes, the commissioners agree, it’s a prominent spot that can be seen across a wide area, but the number of buildings proposed is less important than the ability of the beech trees to make the development difficult to see.

“We have come to the overall conclusion that the reforestation and ecological restoration on this substantial property would have major benefits well beyond the site itself,” the decision says. The commissioners believe Treespace’s proposal is vastly different to a subdivision planned for the site, rejected by the Environment Court in 2012.

“We consider the current application is comprehensive and has been thoroughly prepared, and that with appropriate conditions the benefits clearly outweigh any short and medium-term adverse effects. In reaching this conclusion, we have accepted that ecological restoration and its associated biodiversity gains must necessarily be evaluated and balanced over a longer time-frame than has perhaps traditionally been the case in resource consent applications.”

Sufficiently distinctive

The commissioners aren’t particularly worried about setting a precedent. They think it improbable that an application with “very similar” characteristics will arise. After all, it’s a big parcel of land, and the proponents are offering restrictive conditions.

“Were the scale of benefits specifically in terms of biodiversity to be of a commensurate scale, such a precedent may well be appropriate.”

Of more concern is that Treespace follows through on its promises.

The application involves a mix of restrictive covenants, easements and consent notices to ensure the proposed works are carried out. Despite initial concerns from commissioners, the conditions, and the proposed screening, are now considered adequate.

“This development is staged in a manner which is dependent on demonstrating progress establishing a planting programme, which, if not achieved, means that further development of many of the cabins or chalets will not be possible.”

Treespace’s application – called “exceptional” by commissioners – attracted more than 30 submissions in opposition, and considerable support.

Opponent Chris Streat, a developer, and wife Elizabeth, whose home on Arthurs Point Rd is about 100m from Treespace’s boundary, commissioned their own expert evidence. (Commissioners say the potential visual impacts were exaggerated by the Streats’ landscape architect, Nicola Smetham – so much so that Treespace’s expert, Yvonne Pfluger, compared the apparently overblown assessment to viewing an open-cast mine.)

The question now for the Streats, and others, is whether they feel there are grounds for appeal – and if they’re willing to fork out thousands of dollars more to continue fighting it.

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

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