Week in Review

The mysterious Central Otago airport no one seems to want

Opposition to plans for an international airport in Tarras is growing, with all candidates for the area’s electorate declaring they are against it. Christchurch Airport has spent $45 million buying up farmland but has yet to produce a feasibility report.

Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean says she is mystified by Christchurch Airport’s proposal to build a “prohibitively expensive” international airport at Tarras in Central Otago.

At a public meeting on Tuesday in Cromwell, the National MP and six other candidates representing the Greens, Labour, Advance NZ, NZ First, Act and an independent, unanimously opposed the project.

“I am mystified at why Christchurch Airport would want to invest in Tarras and I’ve had several conversations with them. I simply cannot see how a new airport in the middle of beautiful Tarras can ever get past any planning laws. I just can’t see it.”

She said she had questions for Christchurch International Airport Limited (CIAL) and its owners, the Christchurch City Council, regarding the suitability of the project for Central Otago and whether it would be something Christchurch ratepayers would support.

Labour candidate Liam Wairepo told voters he believed the community and ratepayers should have been consulted before the airport land was purchased. He said while Labour did not have a stance on the matter, he believed Waitaki constituents were largely opposed to it.

“The people don’t want it, it’s not environmentally friendly, it was productive land that was there and even the owners were blind-sided so I don’t support it at all.”

The comments come two months on from the announcement of what CIAL code-named 'Project Oscar' – an International Airport featuring a 2.2km jet capable runway. 

Residents who border the 750ha site now owned by CIAL say uncertainty hangs over the area, affecting people’s daily lives, future plans and community cohesiveness.

Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean opposes the project at a public meeting. Photo: Supplied

A more open style of consultation is desired by many including David and Neroli Mortimer, who were shocked to suddenly find themselves neighbouring the potential site of a bustling international airport.   

Like many of their neighbours, the couple were originally drawn to the valley by the peaceful, rural lifestyle on offer. They were disappointed that those approached by CIAL to sell land were not told of the airport plan and were required to sign non-disclosure agreements.

“CIAL knew that their plans would likely be opposed hence their approach through an agent who let it be thought the land was being purchased for horticultural purposes. It has been a deception from day one and removes any credibility and trust in CIAL” David Mortimer said.

The couple’s lifestyle block on the northern end of Maori Point Road is a few hundred metres from the site and they say they were shocked when the project was announced on July 22.

“Our initial thoughts were ones of disbelief, and we are still stunned by the thought that anyone could conceive that an international airport in this pristine valley would be a good thing. There will be a huge impact on the environment, and a treasure enjoyed by all who travel through it will be lost forever.

"In a location where the allocation of scarce water resources is currently being hotly debated, a company proposes to develop a facility that will gobble water, let alone the impact from all the other infrastructural requirements.”

Chris and Donna Goddard also own a lifestyle block at the northern boundary of the airport land. Chris says their property is being developed under a self-sustaining permaculture philosophy but some plans were now on hold.

“With both Covid impacts and no real detail around the proposal, we are waiting to see where things settle before we start our consented build. We also feel that decisions about strategic assets for New Zealand should be made openly, especially as we grapple with Covid and our future recovery. Secrecy isn’t the way New Zealand works; we pride ourselves on transparency.”

Scott Worthington purchased a riverside property at the eastern end of Maori Point Road to escape growth at a previous address near Alexandra. He said landowners were asked by CIAL’s agent to sign non-disclosure agreements about the sale and that the word ‘horticulture’ was used by the agent when asked what was to happen to the land.

“Just because it is legal what they have done, does that make it okay? Is this in the spirit in which this country is built and way we want our public entities to be working?” 

He described the process as a ‘divide and conquer strategy’ where individuals didn’t know what was being proposed or that others were being approached. His said his neighbour had since apologised for selling neighbouring land to CIAL despite not knowing who the purchaser was at the time.

Worthington said he was not dwelling on the issue and was getting on with life but felt the proposal was affecting people’s daily lives.

“People don’t know what’s happening. No one would buy my land now. They (CIAL) sit on their hands and pretend they have all the time in the world and are asking the whole community to just live with it.”

The proposed site of the international airport.

Worthington was part of a group that would be canvassing people’s thoughts on the issue locally and further afield.

“Two hundred people don’t stop something like this, we need more Kiwis educated and on board. If Tarras is decided by the nation as a place for an airport I would accept it. This is a nationally strategic asset.”

The situation was causing ongoing uncertainty for residents, owner of Bendigo Station, John Perriam, said.

“It’s thrown everyone into a bit of a flux, like the old Clyde dam days really. I really think in the interests of the community they should come forward with some sort of plan for which way the runway would run as there seems to be two options.”

He said this would at least allow neighbouring residents more of an idea of how the proposal might affect their properties.

Dr John Harris, who part-owns Maori Point Wines, also said the uncertainty was affecting people’s daily lives and there had been a total change in the atmosphere of the rural community.

“A lot of people have come recently and bought lifestyle blocks, often in the second stage of life when the children are gone and they’re planning to stay forever. Some are very upset.”

He said the lack of research and planning by CIAL was adding to the situation. Many could not comprehend how the project could be economically viable with the effects of the pandemic now adding more unknowns to the mix.

“There is real uncertainty. It’s all just slightly strange. Some feel like we’ve been caught between an argument between Queenstown Airport and Christchurch Airport and you don’t know how the rational lies. It actually makes dealing with it more difficult because it’s so strange as an economic idea.”

The traditionally farming-orientated community is increasingly diverse and now home to many retired academics, a retired environment court judge, educators, engineers and consultants.

Harris said there had been no shortage of people prepared to be part of an incorporated society being formed in response to the airport proposal.

CIAL Maintains Low Profile

CIAL spokesperson Yvonne Densem said the processes used were necessary.

“The arm’s length process by which we bought the land was confidential for obvious reasons. We have since met with all the landowners face to face and maintain an open dialogue with them.”

CIAL says it has not done any planning or feasibility studies on the project but believed it would provide significant social and economic benefits. They described their actions as “unusual” and “a risk” but the only way to be able to start the process.

Aviation experts had advised CIAL on developing a facility at Tarras, but the company would not be disclosing what that advice was due to commercial sensitivity, Densem said.

CIAL declined requests by Newsroom for interviews with project lead Michael Singleton and CEO Malcom Johns, preferring to keep their activities “discreet” and “low profile”.

“Commercial sensitivity is and will continue to be a factor for this project. While we are very comfortable with how the project is taking shape there are some aspects we must keep to ourselves for now, while our conversations test and shape our thinking.”

She said it was too early in CIAL’s work to be able to give residents certainty, as much they would like to do so.

“We know there is excitement, opportunity and genuine concern. It’s important we understand everyone’s concerns and aspirations. We’re encouraging locals to get in touch and let us know their initial thoughts. If we proceed to a formal planning process, rest assured there will be public consultation and we would do our best to create a piece of infrastructure that is up there with the most sustainable airports in the world and is something that Central Otago can be proud of.”

Emails released under the Official Information Act show Treasury was first briefed on the project on February 28, coincidently the day New Zealand recorded its first case of Covid-19. CIAL is 25 percent owned by the government and 75 percent by Christchurch City Council. The need for confidentiality was emphasised as most, but not all, land had already been secured at that point.

The email, dated March 2, stated that disclosure could influence CIAL’s negotiating position with the owner of the last piece of land necessary for the airport. 

Meanwhile, Queenstown-Lakes District mayor Jim Boult believed the proposal was not financially viable and would never go ahead. The site was unsuitable due to winter fog, inadequate transport links to Queenstown (it is over an hour's drive away) and a lack of potential aviation customers, he said.

“Our own view is it will take many, many years for New Zealand’s tourism industry to get back to near previous levels before Covid-19.”

He said he didn’t have any information on CIAL’s processes in not informing any parties, including those its agent approached to buy land, about what their intention was.

“I have no knowledge of how they went about things but if you asked me if I was going to acquire land for an airport, I think I would feel obligated to tell the folks what I was trying to do.”

The Christchurch City Council declined to comment on details of how the project was initiated.

“The Tarras project will be progressed by Christchurch Airport which is an independent stand-alone commercial business operating at 'arms-length' from Christchurch City Council. The Council and CCHL, as the majority owner of Christchurch Airport, have been briefed on the project and understand both the rationale and opportunity it presents for all South Islanders to work together on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a piece of vital infrastructure.”

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