A billionaire’s bid for a Queenstown helipad is grabbing headlines but there’s a wider battle over chopper landings. David Williams reports.

It’s a question that Queenstown’s residents, civic leaders and airport managers have wrestled with for years. How much noise is too much?

The resort’s airfield was originally a satellite operation mainly for tourists, catering for turbo-prop aircraft like Hawker Siddeleys. Jets only began landing there in 1989, with the first international flight six years later. Night flights, up to 10pm, started in 2016.

Now, Queenstown is the country’s fourth-busiest airport – turning it into something more resembling a bustling bus station than a hard-to-reach mountain town.

It’s not just jets causing noise-sensitive residents to kick up a fuss. Helicopters are a tourist staple – whether for scenic flights, a flight for mountain-top wedding pictures, or heli-skiing. But, over the years, planning battles have broken out over helipad approvals across the district. 

As a public issue, aircraft noise in Queenstown has generally been background noise. That is, until this year.

Opposition went super-sonic in July, when the Queenstown Airport Corporation announced a proposed expansion of its air-noise boundaries. The plan prompted a petition and public posturing about alternative airport locations. The expansion, affecting thousands of additional houses in surrounding residential areas, would have allowed the airport to double aircraft movements by 2045. It seems to have been a tipping point for many local people, already worried about the population and tourism booms that have led locals to question a growth-at-all-costs attitude.

The airport, majority-owned by the local council, backed down earlier this month.

“If you can’t live peacefully on a rural block well away from the airport, where in Queenstown can you live?” – Allister Saville

A very Queenstown battle – pitting wealthy neighbours against each other – has been brewing involving Australian billionaire Tim Roberts. An heir of the Australian construction firm Multiplex’s fortune, Roberts wants approval for up to 20 flights a month to a helipad at his Speargrass Flat home – between Arrowtown and Queenstown.

He’ll use his Bell 429 Global Ranger chopper to commute to his farms across Lake Wakatipu, at Walter Peak and Halfway Bay. By road, it’s a four-hour drive to Walter Peak. Last month, Queenstown’s council warned Roberts to stop using the helipad illegally before getting approval.

A hearing for the application, which was given limited public notification, will be held in Queenstown tomorrow. (Roberts, a pilot for 30 years, tells Newsroom he won’t comment before a decision is made.)

Queenstown council’s senior planner, Alicia Hunter, recommends the non-complying consent be granted, with conditions, for 20 years. Her report says the adverse noise effects, which will be “temporally noticed”, are “less than minor”.

“I consider that due to the intermittent nature of the flights, the duration of take-offs and landings, as well as the volunteered restriction on hours of operation, the effects on the rural character and amenity of these properties will be to a level which is no more than minor.”

Of the seven submitters, six are opposed. Roberts’ lone supporter is neighbour Tim Wiles.

In the application, Roberts’ experts argue the area is already buzzing with choppers, thanks to approved helipads, or “informal airports”, at nearby Millbrook Resort and Coronet Peak. The visual effects of a helicopter are compared to “using or parking a vehicle for farming purposes”. The flight path is to and from the west – away from a cluster of homes to the east, including one owned by Allister and Diane Saville.

The Savilles, who live 220 metres to the east of Roberts, are spitting. Allister Saville, the owner of an award-winning building company, told the Otago Daily Times there was a “perfectly good airport” a 10-15-minute drive away for Roberts to store his helicopter.

Saville’s submission says: “If the significant community opposition on the Queenstown Airport’s proposed expansion is not telling enough, this should be a clear indicator that residents are getting fed up with the noise intrusion from aircraft. If you can’t live peacefully on a rural block well away from the airport, where in Queenstown can you live?”

Loosening the rules

What seems to have flown under the radar is the wider issue of so-called informal airports.

Under Queenstown’s proposed district plan, new rules will allow helipads to spring up, as of right, in rural areas, under certain conditions. Originally, it was to be limited to three flights – take-off and landing is considered one flight – a week, with setbacks of 500 metres from houses, approved building “platforms” for unbuilt houses, and roads.

But what council planner Craig Barr recommended, which has been endorsed by independent hearing commissioners, is up to two flights a day – that’s 1456 movements a year. The mention of a setback from roads has been deleted. Landings already permitted on conservation land and Crown pastoral lease farms will be unlimited.

Fixed-wing aircraft pilots have aired concerns about training flights being limited to two landings a day. Aviation New Zealand chief executive John Nicholson says there’s little public demand for the changes, which put more exacting requirements about the future location of landing sites. Barr has suggested they apply for an existing use certificates or get a consent.

The informal airports decision, adopted by councillors in May, has been appealed by Clive Manners-Wood, who lives near Arthurs Point, where his wife, Shane, has a lavender oil distillery and farm shop.

Long-time Queenstown watchers will know of Manners-Wood, who opposed a helipad taking off from Arthurs Point in 2006, took the company to court and won, shutting the helipad down. The controversy threw out the council rulebook for helicopter landings, sparking hundreds of consent applications from worried chopper firms wanting to legalise their landing sites. Manners-Wood’s subsequent court stoush over an unconsented helipad at Queenstown’s Skyline gondola site, resolved in 2015, resulted in much tighter restrictions, limiting landings to four a day.

The previous court proceedings cost ratepayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, while also hitting Arthurs Point residents in the pocket. Now Manners-Wood reckons he’ll be shelling out tens of thousands himself to effectively do the council’s job. He tells Newsroom: “Their job is to look after our environment, it’s not my job. They’ve got the lawyers, the planners.”

(“That’s Clive’s opinion,” Queenstown Mayor Jim Boult says. “I think the council is well-skilled in protecting the interests of residents.” Boult says decisions are yet to come back to councillors for final sign-off. “It would be inappropriate for me to give an opinion at this point, because it’s subject to an appeal process. I’ll wait to see what comes out of that.”)

Manners-Wood’s appeal says: “The whole issue is simply about noise pollution. The fact you cannot see it, taste, or smell it may explain why it has not received as much attention as other types of pollution.”

Paved paradise, put up a helipad

The status quo – requiring helipads to get consent – is what Manners-Wood wants. If you live in a rural area, he says, you expect peace and quiet, not industrial-level noise. “They’re slowly wrecking every bit of the environment in this valley.”

As Totally Tourism’s co-owner, Mark Quickfall battled Manners-Wood to keep his company’s helicopters flying to Arthurs Point and Skyline. Totally Tourism was sold to Skyline Enterprises, of which Quickfall is now chairman.

He says the new rules are to simplify what was a “blunt instrument” and tidy up issues like which noise standards to use. “There’s a big difference to landing a helicopter, say, on top of the Remarkables versus downtown Queenstown. Surely the guidelines should be different and it just brings some common sense into it.”

Skyline’s submission accuses the council of effectively double-dipping by demanding consent for landings already approved by the Department of Conservation and the Commissioner of Crown Lands. Quickfall says they won’t make any difference to Skyline’s operations, he says, except to provide future flexibility.

The genesis of the chopper changes was a 2012 report by Southern Planning Group’s Sean Dent, written for Queenstown’s council. Dent, a planner, had experience in the area – he had previously contracted to Skyline-owned company The Helicopter Line. The report described the current rules as “unnecessarily restrictive”. It recommended loosening the rules to three flights a week and a setback of 500 metres, with the usual exemptions for emergency landings, rescues, fire fighting and farming.

Dent declared his 2012 report in a submission to the proposed district plan hearing commissioners on behalf of Skyline. He added that he had drafted the proposed provisions for informal airports and associated noise rules, followed by a section 32 analysis on behalf of the council in 2014.

That’s worth repeating. A proposed loosening of helipad rules in Queenstown can be traced to a planner known to work for helicopter companies – who wrote a report for the council, then, two years later, drafted the proposed new rules and then analysed them himself.

Manners-Wood says the helicopter industry targeted the proposed district plan as a way of basically getting it into the district plan “where they could land anywhere they bloody like” without consent.

Dent says that’s wrong. “The reality is that for privately owned rural zoned land there will be limited locations where the minimum setback distances can actually be achieved – i.e. it would be very difficult to meet this requirement in the Wakatipu Basin.”

He adds: “In my professional opinion the proposed district plan provisions ensure that council is not burdened with the workload of processing tens, if not hundreds, of resource consents for ‘informal airports’ where they have already been assessed by other statutory bodies and are in locations where it is highly unlikely they will have significant adverse effects on others.”

Council planning policy manager Ian Bayliss says the allegation against Dent, an experienced independent planning consultant, is completely unwarranted. “Submissions on this matter were considered by an independent hearing panel made up of professional hearing commissioners and also a councillor representative.” (Bayliss admits the council has no idea how many helipads might potentially spring up as a result of the changes.)

Manners-Wood, meanwhile, laughs at the familiar position he finds himself in. “At the moment, I’m the only one holding this back.”

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

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