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$20m Wellington aquarium scuttled

Last updated 00:00 22/09/2007

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Developers of a $20 million marine education centre say they are hunting for another site after the Environment Court sank their plans for Wellington's rugged South Coast.

In a split decision, the court has overturned an earlier ruling to grant resource consent and permits for a marine education centre at Te Raekaihau Pt, near Lyall Bay.

While an appeal was possible, Wellington Marine Conservation Trust chairman Stuart Macaskill said the project's future was uncertain.

"I'm pretty shattered," he said. "I am totally amazed and in disbelief.

"I think the sadness that I feel is the loss on what was an absolutely fabulous project, both for Wellington and the nation."

Wellington City Council had pledged a $7 million interest-free loan for construction of the centre.

Wellington Mayor Kerry Prendergast said she was gutted.

"It's a complete shock and we're extremely disappointed with the decision."

The council still supported the venture, which was a "critical resource for conservation, education and tourism", she said.

Opponents of the centre celebrated at Te Raekaihau Pt yesterday.

"It's a feeling of vindication really, and a feeling of waste," Save the Point chairman Nick Dryden said. "So much time and energy has been wasted fighting this, when it should never have gotten off the ground.

"There has been a massive effort to bulldoze through a bad decision, and it failed."

Mr Dryden said the "massively important" decision would help protect other natural spaces.

The Environment Court's decision was not unanimous. Judge Craig Thompson found in favour of the proposal, but was outnumbered by commissioners Russell Howie and Kathryn Edmonds whose majority view was that consent should not be granted.

Their ruling comes almost a year after commissioners appointed by Wellington City Council and Greater Wellington regional council approved the centre on the contentious site.

Plans for the three-storey complex, on a rocky and windswept 1.3-hectare coastal site, included a cafe seating 155.

The proposal had been backed by the Conservation Department, two prominent local iwi bodies, and two marine education specialists.

Judge Thompson said though the development would change the natural character of the site, it would be an "entirely appropriate use of the site, adding an entirely complementary and interesting asset to the south coastline".

However, his colleagues found the centre would alter the coastal environment and ruled it was inappropriate.

The court did agree on many areas of the appeal. It concluded the proposed centre would have minimal adverse impact on marine ecology and minor adverse geological impact, but would compromise the area's open space values and result in significant adverse effects on the landscape.

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"We find there are special views from and across the site, although we stop short of considering these to be of national importance."

Mr Macaskill said the trust would decide next week whether to appeal against the decision.

The project's initial proponents, marine biologists Victor Anderlini and Judy Hutt, were on holiday in Italy and unaware of the court's decision.

Mr Macaskill said they would be terribly disappointed.

Rongotai MP Annette King, who backed the proposal, said another site would have to be considered.

- The Dominion Post

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