Just after Christmas last year, Christchurch mayoral hopeful Phil Mauger weighed in on airport noise restrictions.
The vigilante city councillor, whose pitch to voters is his sensible and practical approach, and “a reputation for getting stuff done”, told The Press newspaper the city was desperately short of developable land, and he thought reducing noise boundaries might help.
“We need more people paying rates in Christchurch, to reduce the burden on our ratepayers of paying for infrastructure.”
The story was triggered by a review of so-called air noise “contours”, which are modelled lines on a map showing the areas most affected by aircraft noise, around Christchurch’s airport.
Councils can use those boundaries to restrict land use around airports, limiting development and requiring buildings to have noise protection.
Mauger claimed there was “wide agreement” among councillors and staff that the outer noise contour, based on noise of 50 decibels, should be scrapped.
“This is our chance,” he declared. “Here’s the land – let’s bloody do it.”
What Mauger didn’t disclose was his family company owns land within the noise boundaries.
Property records show Rookwood Holdings bought 66 hectares of land at Templeton, an old hospital complex, for $5 million in 2017. Rookwood’s directors and shareholders are Mauger, his sister Penelope Cron, and brothers Stephen and Timothy, and their family trusts.
Newsroom asks Mauger if, when making comments about airport noise boundaries, he should have declared a potential conflict.
“To be honest, it didn’t even cross my mind.”
He adds: “No, you’re right, perhaps I should come out and say that [the family owns land within the noise boundaries] because someone will get hold of it and hang me out to dry.”
(The family owns one other block right next to the airport. “You can actually see the wing of the A380 come over the fence, just about, it’s so close, so that’ll never change [zoning].”)
This seems a mis-step for a candidate whose mayoral campaign webpage points out how careful Mauger is to avoid conflicts between his role as a councillor and his old companies, including a large contracting business that has won council contracts.
Mauger’s main rival for the mayoralty, at this stage, is David Meates, the former chief executive of the now defunct Canterbury district health board.
“I’m surprised that a potential conflict hasn’t been identified [by Mauger],” says Meates, who confirms he doesn’t own land within the airport noise boundaries that could potentially benefit from a change.
“It’s important for anyone standing for public office to be really transparent on either potential or perceived conflicts of interest, because there is always the danger that it can be perceived as something different.”
The pair agree the airport, which is three-quarters owned by Christchurch ratepayers and a quarter-owned by the Crown, must have primacy.
“We must never have a curfew on our airport,” Mauger says.
Meanwhile, Meates says: “The importance of maintaining 24-hour operations of the airport, to the growth and economy of both Christchurch and its surrounding areas, is fundamental.”
Years ago, when Rookwood Holdings’ 66-hectare Templeton block was owned by health authorities, it had been suggested the land be carved up for 600 residential sections.
“When you’re under the flight path that is never going to happen in a month of Sundays,” Mauger says.
He explains the family property’s not suitable for housing, not just because of its proximity to the airport.
“We’ve got some lovely neighbours: we’ve got intellectually handicapped on one side, we’ve got the male prison over the road, we’ve got an alcohol rehabilitation place next door, and then we’ve got, just 100 metres down the road, we’ve got the women’s prison, as well as Ruapuna racetrack. So we’ve got it all.”
South of the Mauger family’s land is a public facility – run by a Brackenridge Services, a charitable subsidiary of Health NZ, using houses leased from Kainga Ora – which supports people with learning disabilities and autism.
Film studio plans
To be fair to Mauger, the fact his family owns land at Templeton is publicly known – he just didn’t identify the conflict.
In the meantime, the Government and Auckland Council pumped $35 million into a studio in West Auckland, and Amazon studios pulled its The Lord of the Rings TV series from New Zealand, shaking the industry’s confidence.
Mauger says of the film studio plan: “You don’t want to go build something that no one’s going to use. So we’ve still got the resource consent, we’re still allowed to do it, but we’re just looking around for opportunities to do it.”
The Templeton property is called Innovation Park.
Tenants listed on the Maugers website include BioPacifica Laboratories, NZ Grain and Seed, and Plant Diagnostics, Plant Research, The Foundation of Arable Research, and the regional council, Environment Canterbury (ECan).
“We’re just looking to fill it up with agricultural-based businesses,” Mauger says.
ECan is undertaking the review of the air noise contours, which sits within its regional policy statement.
Last September, the regional council requested Christchurch International Airport Ltd (CIAL) undertake “remodelling” work, which was completed last year.
A panel of independent experts has been appointed by ECan to peer review the inputs, assumptions and outcomes of the remodelling.
“The panel has met several times and will be providing its findings to CIAL, which may result in changes to CIAL’s modelling,” ECan’s regional planning manager Andrew Parrish says in an emailed statement.
“If remodelling is required, it is unlikely that this work will be completed before December.”
According to the airport company’s website, public consultation on the draft noise contours, as part of the Greater Christchurch spatial plan, is expected to take place next year. The reviewed regional policy statement is expected to be notified in 2024.
Newsroom asked Air New Zealand if it was concerned about air noise boundaries around Christchurch Airport potentially shrinking. The national carrier refused to provide a statement from a named spokesperson. Its anonymised, emailed comment was: “This isn’t [a] matter for us and you’re best to chat to the airport.”
Christchurch Airport communications manager Yvonne Densem says via email: “Many stakeholders have an interest in the review process, but because the process is statutory in nature and currently underway, it’s not appropriate for the airport to comment.”
As noted in last year’s story in The Press, a group of landowners is pushing for the 50 decibel contour to be dropped altogether. That group is led by Yaldhurst’s Brooke McKenzie, the founder of Pacifica Shipping who was behind the now-defunct fast ferries across Cook Strait.
McKenzie, speaking to Newsroom as a plane takes off, defends Mauger.
“He’s made no secret of the fact that he has had interests of land around different areas. I personally don’t know how much he’s got but I don’t think he’s hiding anything there.”
The debate over Christchurch Airport’s noise contours, restricting land apparently suitable for development, has dragged on for 30 years. The 1992 standard for airport noise management set the limit at 55 decibels, McKenzie says, making Christchurch’s noise contours the most restrictive in the country.
(Newsroom asked NZ Airports if any other airports had a 50 decibel line. Chief executive Kevin Ward replied: “Sorry, we don’t have the technical knowledge to help with that question.”)
Christchurch Airport’s noise contours were confirmed in 2008.
“Unfortunately, the airport has had total control over everything that’s happened,” says McKenzie, who maintains he’d like to subdivide his property, where he’s lived for 37 years, to sell “the monstrosity” of a house he lives in, build a smaller house, and give land to his kids.
He and his group have been working on this issue “solidly” for the last 18 months. “We believe we’ve educated ECan and the city council not to be blindsided by bullshit.”
The city needs land to be developed, McKenzie argues, as it’s losing potential ratepayers to developments in the neighbouring Selwyn and Waimakariri districts.
Mauger, the mayoral candidate, reckons if the airport’s 50-decibel noise contour is removed thousands of new sections might be created in the city council area. That converts to millions of dollars in development contributions, and an ongoing source of rates money.
“We haven’t got the variety of land or different subdivisions in different areas that people want to live in, so we’ve got to play to the market, so to speak.”
Last week, a majority of city councillors, including Mauger, agreed to a huge cost-overrun for the city’s planned $683 million stadium. Already, it’s being used to justify change.
Yaldhurst landowner McKenzie suggests Christchurch’s need for new ratepayers is urgent.
“We’ve got a stadium that the ratepayers are going to have to front for,” McKenzie says. “And unless we start developing more, and getting more ratepayers in Christchurch, it’s just going to be an ever increasing debt on the ratepayer of Christchurch, which is totally wrong.”