By GUY WILLIAMS
“It’s a sad day for the district when you have to apply to the bureaucracy of local government for a resource consent to plant some trees on your farm.’’
That’s the reaction of Queenstown developer Chris Meehan to last Friday’s Environment Court finding that trees planted by one of his companies on Ayrburn Farm, beside a stretch of the Queenstown Trail, is unlawful.
He also says he’ll appeal the decision of Judge John Hassan, who ruled the planting was a non-complying activity under the proposed district plan (PDP) and a breach of the Resource
Waterfall Park Developments Ltd (WPD) planted the 500-metre-long double row of trees along the edge of the trail, between Christine’s Hill and Speargrass Flat Road, between late 2019 and last May.
The case was brought by Speargrass Flat Road residents James and Rebecca Hadley, who applied to the court last May for the declarations the court has subsequently made.
Summarising the case’s background in his decision, Hassan said WPD owns the 42-hectare farm on which the trees sit, as well as the adjacent Waterfall Park property.
It had a staged development plan for both properties that included an almost-complete access road into the area and consent for a 380-room hotel.
It had proposed a ‘Waterfall Park Zone’ in the Queenstown Lakes district’s plan review that would enable 100 homes and 114 visitor accommodation units, and was also seeking a rezoning of Ayrburn Farm to enable the construction of 200 homes, a retirement village of an equivalent size, or a rural lifestyle development.
Another Meehan company, Winton Partners, had an agreement with the owners of Loch Linnhe Station that allowed the latter to use the farm for grazing, rent-free, for the purpose of keeping it tidy.
In his evidence, Meehan said if WPD didn’t achieve the rezoning of Ayrburn Farm, the use of the land would be ‘‘essentially limited to farming options’’, and it wanted to make it attractive for potential buyers in case it decided to sell.
Three witnesses, including the farm’s former manager, gave evidence the planting — a mix of Leyland Cypress, Portuguese Laurel and Mountain Beech — would not serve a useful purpose as a farming shelterbelt because the area was already well protected from the wind, those tree species were unsuitable, and the double row created a ‘‘screen’’ more associated with rural residential development.
Meehan disagreed, saying in evidence the planting provided much-needed wind shelter, the species chosen were commonly used for shelterbelt and boundary planting in the area, would help prevent stock from being disturbed by trail users, and could easily be trimmed.
The Hadleys’ lawyer, Phil Page, said the true purpose of the planting was to screen buildings and activities the company planned to establish as part of its development strategy, and was ‘‘simply trying to bypass capacity for its landscape screening to be regulated or controlled under consenting processes and related plan rules’’.
The company’s counsel, Warwick Goldsmith, said it was legitimate for his client to prepare for the real prospect of its rezoning attempt failing, and it was entitled to carry out the planting to make the site attractive for potential purchasers wanting to farm the land.
However, Hassan said the company’s evidence did not satisfy the ‘‘primary purpose’’ test in the PDP in terms of the company’s future use of the site.
It was clear the site did not need a shelterbelt for its current farming purposes, and it was ‘‘speculative’’ whether or not a future purchaser would find the planting would significantly benefit farming or other rural uses of the site.
He was also satisfied the evidence showed the planting could adversely impact the trail by shading it during the winter.
He reserved his decision on costs.