A Christchurch City Council committee has expressed concern about one of its subsidiary companies, Christchurch International Airport, pushing ahead with a proposed airport at Tarras in Central Otago.

Potential climate-change effects and costs are the focus of an amendment narrowly agreed to on Wednesday during a review of documents that guide the council’s commercial arm.

Seven councillors voted to add it as feedback to a draft statement of intent and six voted against.

The council’s finance and performance committee also agreed to attach feedback from Sustainable Tarras, a group whose members neighbour the site of the proposed airport, to the draft document.

The airport company, which is three-quarters council-owned with the rest owned by the Crown, is set to meet the council soon to update it on its work at Tarras.

Councillor Yani Johanson was a lone voice in denouncing the project yesterday while most around the table expressed worries but wanted to know more before drawing a line in the sand.

“The point [at which] to put the brakes on Tarras,” says councillor Aaron Keown, “would be once we have all the information.”

He says the public are “flying blind” as to the benefits or otherwise of the proposal.

The initial reasoning for the airport development stacked up, he says, and the community now needs to know whether subsequent work still supports it.

Representatives of the council holding company that owns six commercial entities including the airport company stake told councillors the Tarras proposal is not predetermined.

The plan remains “an option” and may not proceed beyond the investigation stage.

If the airport company does take it further and gains the necessary resource consents  a detailed business case could be years away yet.

Last piece of the puzzle

Meanwhile the company’s purchase in May of a small but strategically important chunk of farmland at Tarras has sparked new debate about the controversial project.

On May 11 the airport company took possession of a 38ha farmlet at the northern end of its proposed 750ha site in rural Central Otago.

Retired farmer Philip Parcell had earlier resisted approaches to sell the block both before and after becoming aware it was intended for an airport.

Parcell told Stuff in 2020 he wanted to stay and die on the land where he had been born.

The agent acting for the buyer reportedly hinted at the possible compulsory purchase of the land on the strength of the government’s 25% stake in the airport company.

Parcell could not be reached this week but Newsroom understands he had been in poor health before agreeing to sell.

For three years his block near the tip of the proposed jet-capable runway has had an uncertain future, being bordered on three sides by land already owned by the airport company.

Climate concerns

Groups opposing the airport have appeared regularly in local-body public forums in Christchurch and Central Otago in recent years.

On Wednesday it was the turn of Christchurch city’s finance committee to be berated by opponents of the plan with climate-action group Extinction Rebellion’s Sara Campbell speaking.

She told councillors that without demand control the decarbonisation of aviation was an insurmountable problem and any expansion of the industry was a “terrible idea”.

Campbell says producing enough green hydrogen to power aircraft would be electricity-intensive and the council lacks “social licence” to continue pursuing the project.

In response to Keown saying the council had seen evidence that airports in strategic places lead to a lower overall aviation carbon footprint, Campbell says the Tarras project will allow expansion of aviation.

A letter to the committee from Sustainable Tarras asks that the project be stopped to avoid “further multimillion-dollar investments in land and consultants”, and says objectors here and overseas see the development as not only harmful to the local environment but also a contributor to global carbon emissions.

“Further, few people can understand why one arm of the council is promoting Christchurch as a destination while another is actively investing millions of dollars in taking tourists and freight away from Christchurch.”

The group urges the council to include requirements in the statement of intent for a transparent business case, predicted shareholder returns, a social-licence assessment and estimates of potential carbon emissions including those from flights.

The airport company told Newsroom it is exploring the potential for the airport to “resolve the constraints around aviation capacity in the Central Otago region”.

The airport’s chief strategy and stakeholder officer, Michael Singleton, says the company is not looking to buy more land at this stage.

He declined to comment on rumours that a bridge could be built across the Clutha-Mata Au River linking the site with state highway 6.

“Our experts are undertaking preliminary analysis of the project’s impact on Central Otago’s land transport network – along with the impact of doing nothing. We’ll release that when it’s ready to share.”

Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

Jill Herron is a journalist based in Cromwell.

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