A plan to develop a high country station is pushing the boundaries – even for Queenstown. David Williams reports.

You could call it a battle for Queenstown’s soul. Property investor and developer Adam Smith certainly does.

Smith’s company Treespace Queenstown Ltd wants to build a tourist lodge, 43 cabins and 11 chalets on a prominent high country farm property, about seven kilometres from the lakeside resort. He and other investors paid $10 million for Mt Dewar and have set aside another $2 million to bring the project to fruition.

The vision, Smith says, is postage-stamp-sized lots nestled in beech forest.

Many people move to Queenstown to be amongst nature, Smith says, but end up living in “a suburban format underneath flight-paths and in apartments”. “We wanted to provide an alternative,” he says, adding: “Queenstown has an opportunity to keep its soul.”

Much has been made of Treespace’s ecological restoration plans for Mt Dewar, to plant 400 hectares of restored native beech forest. They’d be a native replacement for fast-growing wilding pine trees, many dead from spraying, that cover its prominent slopes. The project, which also includes pest control, is billed as the biggest privately funded restoration in the country’s history.

Treespace’s aims seem well-meaning and Smith’s passion genuine. But the plan appears to disregard battles over many years to keep unnecessary buildings off Queenstown’s prominent hills, often covered by tawny tussock. If the council approves this project, the argument goes, then there could be development creep in other outstanding landscapes, whittling away whatever soul the tourist resort has left.

The march of progress in Queenstown, it’s feared, could enter new territory – up the sides of mountains.

The looming battle pits environmentalist against environmentalist. Smith’s group sees an innovative, commercially viable solution to the mess of wilding pines and an uneconomic high country farm. The other group, including Mt Dewar’s former owners, wants to protect and preserve the Basin’s open landscapes.

High threshold

Treespace’s consent application lays out the barriers to the development.

Mt Dewar, which stretches 1768 hectares, is classified as an outstanding natural landscape and is zoned rural general, which means a high bar for any development. It adjoins the Coronet Peak ski area recreation reserve and is bisected by a conservation reserve. It is former Crown land, bought and freeholded through tenure review, over which several covenants and consent conditions have been placed, restricting what can be built there.

If approved, Treespace’s project would also break a long-held view, reinforced by court decisions, that development should not creep up the slopes overlooking the backroad between Queenstown and Arrowtown.

Asked how he views these multiple barriers, Smith says the zoning doesn’t prohibit what the company is trying to do, but the threshold to achieve it is very high. The outstanding natural landscape classification is “a line on a piece of paper”, he says.

“In practice this hillside, visually speaking, is severely compromised. It’s not a pretty sight. It’s not natural, it’s a very unnatural environmental up there. It has been highly altered over decades and decades. What we’re proposing here is re-introducing the natural cloak that was once on the mountain.”

“We have to look at it from the eyes of the land, the mountain, the planet, at the same time.” – Adam Smith

Beech trees dot parts of Mt Dewar still, but Treespace’s documents acknowledge that it’s likely the early Māori started clearing the property of beech, by burning. So it might be hundreds of years since those front slopes had a cloak of beech trees.

Smith, who bankrolled local hotel-restaurant Sherwood Queenstown’s makeover, counters that by saying it’s a “cultural misconception” that all Queenstown’s hillsides were golden, grassy hillsides. “We have to look at it from the eyes of the land, the mountain, the planet, at the same time and say, ‘Look, what’s more important? Is it to preserve a visual farming heritage outcome, or is it to try and restore the natural balance?’”

Treespace’s restored beech forest is not just an ecological move. It also acts as a screen for the new buildings and the criss-cross of access roads.

It could be argued that the existing smudge of wilding pines has already changed the view of the landscape, and the beech trees are a more ecologically appropriate replacement. (Until the beech trees grow, in about 10 years, the pines will act as an intermediate screen.)

However, Mt Dewar Station’s former owners, the Greenslade family, are unimpressed by plans for the large-scale planting of beech trees. They call Treespace’s proposal “audacious” and are calling on Queenstown’s council to reject it.

Adverse effects ‘glossed over’

In a statement to Newsroom, the Greenslades say it appears to be open season for developers in Queenstown, as they push to “rezone and plunder the landscape more and more, with bigger and bolder proposals”.

(Recent jarring developments include a massive retirement village built on what used to be paddocks along Ladies Mile, between Lake Hayes and Frankton, and a monolithic building that houses a skydive simulator near the town’s gondola. Some developments have been approved by the council without public notification, despite breaking planning rules.)

The family says: “We are aghast at the temerity of the new land developer-owners masquerading with a new environmental beech planting model in order to justify the creation of 55 commercial dwellings.

“The adverse effects of habitation are glossed over. The scale is greater than ever anticipated.

“Mt Dewar is broadly and prominently visible from almost the entire Wakatipu Basin. This proposed development with many residential and tourism buildings, will detract from views that are currently characterised by beautiful natural mountainous landscape.”

Fruitless development push

The Greenslades successfully opposed the last attempt to develop Mt Dewar. (Elizabeth Greenslade, a former journalist, represented the family at the hearing and still owns a house in Queenstown.)

In 2011, Queenstown property development company Mount Field Ltd announced it wanted to build a lodge, 14 houses and a slew of access roads over 1.7km along the north-western side of Coronet Peak Rd. A major payoff was the owners of those houses would have been required to stump up for the station’s running costs, including for wilding pine control and eradication.

Council-appointed commissioners rejected the proposal and Mount Field appealed to the Environment Court. It, too, sent the developers packing, calling its plan “inappropriate”. The 2012 decision gives crucial insight into Mt Dewar and its importance.

Opponents of Mount Field’s plans said they thought the district planning rules would prevent such development, and allowing such a proposal to get ahead would be “the thin end of the wedge”. The court said the prominently visible subdivision “will add a discordant built form to a landscape that, Coronet Peak Road aside, is all but free of intrusion into the tawny mountainside”.

Mount Field already had approval to construct some farm-related buildings at Mt Dewar. Many were never built, however, and, in the court’s eyes, were never going to be. Mount Field director David Broomfield admitted some of the applications were “ridiculous”.

The consents built the intensity for construction and development on the property, the decision said, “but with remarkably little of what was consented, and what was required by covenants and the like, having actually been done”.

Mt Dewar is visible from many parts of the Wakatipu Basin. Photo: David Williams

At the court hearing, Broomfield said his company had spent more than $1 million on legal and professional fees. The court decision said: “A critic of that view might, perhaps unkindly, say that the direct expenditure of that sort of money on wilding eradication and control might have produced substantial progress on the problem, but spending it on a long-term resource consent strategy has achieved comparatively little.”

And little was done to tackle the pest forest, which had spread over roughly 83 hectares of Mt Dewar. Wilding pine control, carried out with the help of a local group and the Department of Conservation, had “ceased because further funds were not available”.

In a sign of the difficulty of farming the balance of the land, the company included an option of selling the rest of the station to Queenstown’s council “for a nominal ($1) price at any time in the future”. Mount Field offered to contribute $10,000 to making a bike trail. (The property now has 30km of public bike trails, to which Treespace wants to add another 20km.)

Back to the present day, the Greenslade family, who were awarded costs in the 2012 Environment Court case, are worried about Treespace’s stickability, especially for an untested scheme. Treespace’s plans look persuasive and slick, the family says, but the benefits are hypothetical.

Beech forest regeneration on that scale is unproven, they say, and given the changing climate, may not even be appropriate, or possible. The family questions if Treespace has the knowledge, experience and ability to bring it to fruition, as the project stretches over decades.

(Treespace’s ecological experts, E3s, state: “The approach is grounded over 10 years of reforestation and ecological restoration projects completed by E3s within the Wakatipu Basin, therefore, providing the project is appropriately resourced, E3s is confident a project of this scale can be implemented effectively.”)

The Greenslades conclude: “If Wakatipu locals do not want to look at houses on their outstanding natural landscape mountains, they need to make their views known in a submission.”

NZSki Ltd, the company that owns Coronet Peak’s skifield, also opposed Mount Field’s plans. But Paul Anderson, NZSki’s CEO, says Treespace’s proposal looks like a fantastic environmental initiative. “It would dovetail beautifully with the environmental work we’re doing at Coronet Peak such as trapping, removal of invasive species, re-vegetation and native planting.” 

Trust, motivation, and the end of protest

Treespace’s director, Smith, realises trust is a big issue. Given the rampant and sometimes damaging development in Queenstown in the past, he understands people wanting to test his group’s motivation – to be sure it’s not just a money-making exercise.

(The company’s bumph refers to smaller houses being more affordable, and different ownership options, including freehold, leasehold and some available for short-term lets.)

Smith actually applauds previous battles against development, saying a lot of existing landscapes around the country are protected because of those protests. But endless opposition is only so fruitful, he suggests. At some stage there needs to be a solution.

“Maybe this is the way to protect [Mt Dewar] forever. Because once you plant these native trees, I tell you what, to throw the urban boundary out, and say you’ve got to cut down a whole lot of natives to put houses in, that’s not going to happen.”

(That seems an interesting contradiction – that approving these houses will protect the hillside from other houses being built.)

Treespace’s project will challenge people, Smith says. “It’s worth putting it out there and it’s worth putting myself and my money on the line and asking others to do the same, to try and get that outcome.” He paints a picture of visitors to Mt Dewar feeling like being in a national park – “as if you’re down in Glenorchy at the bottom of the Routeburn, that’s what we’re planting”.

The public will be challenged by the development plans – those living nearby, especially. But the biggest challenge, it seems, is for this land to be seen as something other than a jaw-dropping backdrop for an internationally renowned part of the world.

A Department of Conservation report, written before Mt Dewar went through tenure review, noted the property is easily seen from many parts of the Wakatipu Basin. The writer wanted the tussock cover above the ski field access road retained. “Any major changes in land-use or sitings of structures on the finely textured landscape above the Coronet Peak Road would have an adverse effect on the wider amenities of the district.”

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

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