Coast watch

by Bruce Ansley / 01 October, 2005
The seemingly unstoppable march of East Coast land acquisition by foreigners and beachside subdivision is attracting more hostility from locals.

Getting to the beach is growing harder as coastal property continues to boom. Wealthy enclaves are displacing traditional access and Kiwi camping grounds alike. But on the East Coast, they called on Shania Twain for help.

The Canadian Queen of Country was allowed to buy a high country station near Wanaka - but only after she did a deal with the Overseas Investment Commission (OIC) that allowed public access (Listener, October 9, 2004). The OIC is the government agency monitoring overseas buyers.

What's good enough for Twain, East Coast people reckoned, should be good enough for John Griffin.

Griffin, a New York financier, bought a farm on Young Nicks Head three years ago in a deal that alarmed New Zealanders and effectively ended unfettered foreign ownership of iconic land. Young Nicks Head was the first part of New Zealand sighted by Captain Cook, and the public baulked at it passing from New Zealand ownership. The government imposed conditions on the sale to protect public interests in the area, and subsequently toughened up the law on sales to foreign owners. Griffin has since impressed locals with his efforts to restore the land, but set off more alarm bells when he proposed buying another large farm, Mapiri Station, just south of Young Nicks Head. The property provided access to one of the best beaches in the area. Locals demanded that the government do a Twain-like deal and guarantee them continued access.

Orchardist Colin Alder said that the beaches were the nicest for 200km in either direction. He argued that his and other locals' children would now never be able to afford to buy land in the area. Griffin paid $6m for his new property and preventing locals from visiting their most beautiful places would add insult to injury. Dawson Dods, a neighbouring farmer, and Tu Wyllie, of the local Ngai Tamanuhiri people, urged the OIC to protect local rights. Wyllie claimed to have been denied access to Orongo Beach below Griffin's Young Nicks Head property for conservation reasons. He demanded to know what was meant by reasonable public access.

The OIC approved the sale of Mapiri, but, according to then Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen, Griffin was required to "guarantee walking access over the property to the foreshore to natural persons during daylight hours". Not as good as the previous drive-through access, but access at least, said Dods: "If we hadn't written to the OIC asking them to treat us the same as with Shania Twain, there'd be zero access." Says Alder: "It's a good result."

But Highgate, a farm lying between the two Griffin properties, with frontage to what has been described as its own "private beach", remains on the market, according to real estate agent David Egan. Access is likely to be an issue again, for a foreign buyer is likely: it was passed in at auction for $6.3m.

A little further south, however, beach disputes continue.

At Mahia Peninsula, a sign on the side of a container says, "Mahia Progress Sucks". It is easy to agree. But this was an abused land before the current posse of developers arrived. Decaying outposts inland preside over a forlorn, over-used landscape. Out on the coast, the grey sand and marram grass, the clean lines of surf, the white cliffs of Mahia Peninsula remain the reason that people come here.

Nearby, developers are working on a new subdivision on a former camping ground at Blue Bay, close to Opoutama. Their earthmovers churn up the sand while on the beach side of a narrow belt of pine trees on a public reserve a small encampment of protesters peel spuds for dinner under their Maori sovereignty flag. They vow to occupy the site indefinitely. Ngaro Moana Tomoana from Opoutama says that the essence of the argument is alienation: of iconic land from its coastal community, of low-income locals by people who can afford $650,000 sections, of access to a much-loved beach. ("We're getting 44 transient neighbours versus us, who are here for cultural and lifestyle reasons.")

Developer Craig Nisbet, though, promises to improve public access by creating three public walkways to the reserve in addition to the public road; it was previously impossible to walk legally through the camping ground. He says most buyers are from Hawke's Bay and Gisborne, "habitual holidaymakers" in the Mahia region. "They're sympathetic towards the local way of life. That's why they're buying the sections."

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