An Environment Court battle over a private lodge to be built overlooking Lake Pukaki might be over before it has started, after the Crown refused to sell the land. David Williams reports.

The winds of political change are being felt in the Mackenzie Basin.

Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), which manages Crown land, has refused to follow through on the controversial sale of Crown land next to Lake Pukaki. Blue Lake Investment (NZ) Ltd, the company that would have ultimately bought the land, had plans to build a private lodge for its Hong Kong billionaire owner, Ka Kit “Peter” Lee. Now it has asked the Environment Court to put the case on hold while ownership of the land is resolved.

Key to LINZ’s refusal to sell was “the recent change in Government and ongoing review of land use in the Mackenzie Basin”, as well as the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) intention to seek protection for the land. Former Guide Hill Station co-owner David Gould claimed not to know about the decision last night – “you’re telling me things I don’t know”  – so it’s unknown if the decision will be challenged.

Environmental groups that were gearing up to fight Blue Lake’s lodge proposal are delighted, saying it’s a sign of LINZ’s change of attitude under the new Government. Previously the groups have railed against LINZ decisions, whether over land protected by the tenure review process or decisions to grant discretionary consents, sometimes against DOC advice, for more intensive farming on Crown land.

On the back of a recent decision by Mackenzie District Council-appointed commissioners to uphold tough new environmental rules, there’s now a feeling the pendulum is swinging from pro-development towards environmental protection in the Mackenzie Basin. “That’s my clear expectation,” Environmental Defence Society executive director Gary Taylor says.

Blue Lake, meanwhile, says if the land stays in Crown ownership then it’s questionable whether the “significant public benefits” being considered as part of the lodge proposal will occur.

The property at the centre of the controversy is Guide Hill Station, a 3550-hectare farm station on Lake Pukaki’s eastern flank. In March 2016, the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) gave Blue Lake approval to buy it off the Gould family for $16.5 million – plus $5.6 million of additional investment, including $3 million on a new lodge. Tacked on to the OIO decision was consent for Blue Lake to buy 28ha of “former Crown land” at Guide Hill, which was to be “returned by the Crown to the vendor” – meaning the Goulds. That’s where the lodge was meant to be built, just 40 metres from Lake Pukaki.

The slice of land was taken from the station in 1976 for electricity generation. In 2016, LINZ signalled it intended to give up the land, applying for a subdivision consent “to repatriate it to Guide Hill Station Ltd” – despite LINZ admitting there were “no applicable offer-back provisions”.

The bombshell decision that LINZ didn’t intend to sell the land was revealed in a letter written by LINZ group manager of Crown property John Hook to Guide Hill’s lawyers, Gallaway Cook Allan. Queenstown lawyer Graeme Todd, who acts for Blue Lake, said the letter was served on Monday afternoon. “It came out of the blue.”

Hook said due to the recent change of Government and ongoing review of land use in the Mackenzie Basin, LINZ had to ensure the Department of Conservation’s “requirements are still current” for the Crown land, which Guide Hill Station has a licence to occupy. “DOC has confirmed their requirements and interest in pursuing formal protection of the land due to significant conservation values. Therefore a decision has been made to retain the subject land in Crown ownership.”

Blue Lake’s lawyer Todd tells Newsroom DOC’s interest is somewhat surprising. “First of all, there was always proposed to be a marginal strip laid off for conservation purposes anyway, and secondly to the best of our knowledge and, as I understand it, the Goulds’ knowledge, there has never been any conservation values ever identified in respect of this land by the Department of Conservation or anybody else.”

Threat to significant benefits

It’s up to the Goulds to challenge LINZ’s decision, Todd says. His client’s still interested in the land and, no matter what happens, it doesn’t jeopardise the OIO-approved sale of Guide Hill. What it does jeopardise is “significant public benefits” being negotiated as part of the lodge proposal. Todd: “All that the public are going to get is a bit of extra land, which is ridden with exotic trees, which they’re going to have to now pay to remove.”

Federated Farmers high country chairman Simon Williamson says district councils are giving consents for fish farms and other businesses near Mackenzie Basin canals, on land taken for hydroelectricity purposes. “It’s messy and it’s an erosion of people’s property rights, really, because it should have gone back to those families that owned it originally. Whether it’s got conservation values or not, who’s to say that the Goulds aren’t the best people to look after those conservation values?”

There’s unease in the district about the Government’s policies, Williamson says. He commends Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage for wanting to meet people in the Basin, but slams Environment Minister David Parker for his “rash statements” in recent days, on cutting cow numbers to raise water quality. “The Mackenzie’s very much in the eye of the NGOs and the green movement at the moment,” Williamson says. “What you’ve got to understand, you can’t expect a business to stand still for 10 years or 20 years – and the Mackenzie’s not in its natural state.”

Taylor, of the Environmental Defence Society, says the fact Sage is minister of both conservation and land information has led to a more consistent and coherent approach to high country management. Her ascent has been timed with a new senior management team at LINZ and a review of the performance of agencies, including the local and regional councils, in the Mackenzie. Taylor says LINZ appears to have changed its priorities for the Basin and the decision not to sell could be seen as the first manifestation of that.

“The overall objective for the Mackenzie Basin has to be, or is, the creation of a large representative drylands park. So developments as they come along will need to be consistent with that outcome.”

Forest & Bird Canterbury/West Coast regional manager Jen Miller, of Christchurch, says the Crown-owned lakeside land being retained by LINZ has some natural values and huge recreational potential.

Mackenzie Basin issues have been in the news over the past week. Greenpeace launched its “Save the Mackenzie” petition to “stop industry dairy expansion” and Environment Minister Parker said on TVNZ’s Q+A programme that the Government was still considering whether to halt tenure review. Ecologists have previously suggested the Mackenzie is at an environmental tipping point. Last year, Environment Court judge Jon Jackson called for a halt to tenure review, as freeholding land for farming intensification had led to the rapid loss in ecological values.

Rosalie Snoyink, of community group Mackenzie Guardians, hopes LINZ’s decision to retain the land on the shores of Lake Pukaki in Crown ownership ushers in a change from pro-development policies towards more environmental protection in the Mackenzie. “Hopefully we don’t have to use the word tipping point anymore, it could be a turning point,” she says. “We simply can’t continue developing the Mackenzie like we have.”

* This story has been updated with comments from Simon Williamson.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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