A Hong Kong billionaire’s development of a high country station in the Mackenzie Basin is shifting up a gear. David Williams reports.

Plans for a new tourist facility at a foreign-owned high country station near Lake Pukaki have sailed through planning permission.

Blue Lake Investment (NZ) Ltd, owned by Hong Kong billionaire Ka Kit “Peter” Lee, paid $16.5 million two years ago to buy the 3550-hectare Guide Hill Station on the eastern shore of Lake Pukaki, about 24km from Tekapo.

The Overseas Investment Office’s approval for the sale highlighted $5.6 million of additional investment by Blue Lake, including spending $2 million building accommodation and tourist facilities.

Lee’s other big plan, to build a sprawling lodge just 40m from Lake Pukaki’s shore, was put on ice in May after Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) refused to give up 28ha of prime lakeside land taken in 1976 for electricity generation.

Guide Hill Station’s former owners, the Gould family, confirm to Newsroom they’re prepared to go to the High Court to force the Crown to hand over the 28ha.

“Hopefully it’ll be available for next summer – that’s the plan.” – Graeme Todd

Last month, the Mackenzie District Council approved a resource consent, without public notification, for Blue Lake’s plans – located about four kilometres from the lake, within a cluster of existing farm buildings. A copy of the consent, provided to Newsroom, shows the company intends to build a tourist facility comprising visitor accommodation units for up to 48 guests, a cafe/restaurant and shop, helipad, jetty and a multi-use outdoor facility for weddings and stargazing.

Blue Lake’s lawyer Graeme Todd, of Queenstown, says irrigation work has already taken place on Guide Hill, for a finishing block. “And there’s some ecological planting that will be undertaken this spring. This is now the first stage of the tourist operation.”

He adds: “Hopefully it’ll be available for next summer – that’s the plan.”

Environmental Defence Society executive director Gary Taylor says the development’s taking place in what looks like a suitable site – an area of Guide Hill zoned for farm development.

“The Mackenzie landowners need to diversify in order to provide conservation benefits and this is a good example of how and where to do it – far preferable to dairying. Whilst we think the application should have been notified we don’t think the Council has erred in law in processing it on a non-notified basis.”

That contrasts with Taylor’s view of Blue Lake’s lodge plans, which he says was in a completely inappropriate site. “It shows how important location is for tourism developments in the basin.”

LINZ decision challenged

The lodge was to be built on what is now Crown land, taken from Guide Hill for the hydroelectricity scheme. Blue Lake lodged its consent, relying on a LINZ promise to hand it over. The consent hit trouble, however, when a consultant planner recommended the local council reject it, over concerns the building would change the character of the lakeside land.

Blue Lake opted to take its plans directly to the Environment Court, but that consent’s on hold while the land ownership is resolved. Also up in the air is a proposal to covenant 1400 hectares of Guide Hill, as an environmental offset.

LINZ said its decision to renege on promises to “repatriate” the land to Guide Hill was because of “the recent change in Government and ongoing review of land use in the Mackenzie Basin”. The Department of Conservation says it intends to seek protection of the land.

Any challenge to LINZ has to come from the former station owners, the Gould family, who now own Mount Cook Station.

Marion Gould tells Newsroom the family has objected to the decision not to return the lakeside land, taken under the Public Works Act. “If it’s not approved, we’d be looking at High Court action,” she says. “By rights it should have been returned to Guide Hill Station.”

Development anticipated

On district planning maps, the Guide Hill tourism facility area is an outstanding natural landscape but is within a so-called farm base area. Successive court decisions have tightened development rules in the Mackenzie, but they anticipate development in such areas. Blue Lake plans 13 new buildings and an access road from Braemar Rd.

Building features have been tweaked to ensure the site will be reasonably hard to see at night from the main highway, about nine kilometres away. West-facing windows will be tilted and various light-shielding devices installed, like automated blackout blinds and louvres.

Eight three-room accommodation units, including decking, will have a total footprint of about 1800 square metres. The restaurant will seat up to 90 people. An outdoor platform will be used for weddings and stargazing. A 24m-long building will be a combined boatshed and research facility, to be used by Lincoln University staff and students.

Commercial outdoor recreational pursuits at the site could include guided walks, horse treks and mountain biking. Most visitors are expected to arrive by bus from Tekapo.

Trucks, snow and bikes

Traffic safety concerns were raised about Braemar Rd. There could be a clash with logging trucks from Mt Cook Station and the road is frequently closed by snow in winter, a council report said. Meanwhile, Hayman Rd. which hugs the eastern shore of Lake Pukaki, is used for the Alps to Ocean cycleway. But it was considered the effects would be minor.

Building a jetty on the shore of a Guide Hill tarn, called The Black Hole, will have “considerable” adverse effect on what is considered to be a site of natural significance, a two-page ecological review for the Mackenzie council said. But environmental consultant Mike Harding concluded “the extent of this disturbance is very small compared with the extent of this lake shore plant community”. A mitigation measure will be using a long-reach digger to drive in poles. Additional planting is planned.

Two “degraded” wetlands will be destroyed by the construction of a car park. Harding’s ecological review said it’s “unlikely”, but “possible”, rare plant species are present. The report said he visited the site but didn’t undertake a thorough ecological assessment.

Trust seeks voluntary protection

Blue Lake’s purchase of Guide Hill was contingent on the company spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on philanthropic projects, including $180,000 with Lincoln University and $200,000 donated to the Mackenzie Country Trust. The trust’s general manager Rose Austen-Falloon confirms Blue Lake has made two tranches of its promised $200,000 of donations to the trust over three years.

She says the money’s being used to help “fund the development of the trust’s tools and strategy”, she says. “This year we are focusing on our engagement with the Mackenzie and Upper Waitaki communities, identifying ways to protect different values, developing a drylands area concept, and securing sustainable funding for the trust.”

The trust was suggested by the Mackenzie Agreement, signed in 2013, but was only established three years later. Its goal is to create a network of “voluntary” protected land across the Basin. “This could enhance the public conservation land,” says Austen-Falloon, who came to the trust from the Ministry for Primary Industries.

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

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