Letting foreigners buy up our best places must come with access perks for Kiwis
OPINION: Hunter Valley Station's lease is lined up to be sold to American television anchor Matt Lauer in an Overseas Investment Office deal that has frustrated Federated Mountain Clubs.
The OIO has agreed to just a fraction of recommended public recreation access through this Otago property which has been valued at $13.2 million. Ordinary New Zealanders may feel that something important is slipping away from them.
There are big issues in this – how our public agencies do their jobs; the connectedness of the backcountry with our national sense of self; the future of high country farming; and how our property market should work. They're ripe for thorough discussion; for FMC, the OIO's workings on recreation access are of particular interest.
Most immediately, though, FMC is calling on the Commissioner of Crown Lands to require a public easement through the 6,468 hectare Lake Hawea shorefront property as a condition of the sale agreement.
* US broadcaster Matt Lauer snaps up Wanaka real estate ...
* Wealthy land-buyers lead to loss of public access ...
* Locals win access fight at Lake Hawea farm
* Hunter Valley sale a better deal for NZ says agent
Hunter Valley is an end-of-the-line property where the legal road sputters and dies before it reaches public space. This is crucial. The distance between the end of a road and the commons may be slight, but without the lifeline of formal access, it can be an effective gulf. So it is at Hunter Valley.
Despite its awareness of this, the OIO has ignored seven of nine Walking Access Commission recommendations that would see an easement run through the station into the heart of the nearby landlocked 105,000 hectare Hawea Conservation Park. Two recommendations the OIO did adopt simply formalise scraps of front-country access Kiwis have long enjoyed.
As a barrier to iffy overseas incursions on our cherished places and values, the OIO seems more like a kid with a Stop-Go sign than high tensile barbed wire. Refrains of complaint run through the media – about high country runs becoming exotic fashion accessories and Armageddon insurance, and about new owners' disregard for Kiwi recreation traditions.
Nuggets of truth and myth jostle for space and need teasing out, but what does appear evident is that the OIO is not doing its job properly.
To be clear, the agency's raison d'etre is to underscore the privilege of overseas ownership of our special places by imposing meaningful quid pro quos on buyers. In FMC's view, that should translate to outcomes such as practical recreation access. For Hunter Valley, it should mean creation of the up-valley easement and, alongside, a permanent section of the Lake Hawea loop trail.
There's a real affront in the OIO's failure to insist on these. The deal's exclusivity makes accessibility of the public land beyond, where the human context is freedom to roam and social equality – a place without exclusivity – ever more important. It is perverse that the OIO has in fact shored up barriers to Kiwi recreationists.
It looks to FMC as if the OIO is not only out of touch with its own purpose, but as if it has allowed Lauer – or his representatives – to dictate the concessions he'll make to New Zealanders.
His application's cry of "working farm" is specious justification for turning down the Walking Access Commission's access recommendations. It's an easy appeal to Kiwi respect for toil on the land, but in reality, merinos and cattle are bit-players in the wider context of the deal. Actual farming has little to do with it. Establishing a stratospherically-priced enclave then claiming it's a salt-of-the-earth operation is a case of attempting to have your cake and eat it.
The OIO should ensure overseas investments are positive for Aotearoa or decline them; its decisions shouldn't trigger upwellings of alienation and outrage. Review of its performance should be prioritised. In the meantime, there's even greater urgency at Hunter Valley, where the Commissioner of Crown Lands' penstroke will determine the property is either cul de sac or gateway to the commons.
It's an issue that was never imagined by those first draughting Aotearoa's roads or by earlier generations of recreationists mostly made welcome in the high country. Where overseas buyers move into that landscape, opportunities to create genuine access for Kiwis should be grabbed by an OIO that knows where its heart is.
Jan Finlayson is vice-president of Federated Mountain Clubs, the national association of climbing and tramping clubs. It is a voluntary body representing more than 80 clubs, 20,000 members, and 300,000 people recreating annually in New Zealand's backcountry.