Waitaki district councillors have a big decision to make.
After hearing more than 900 submissions on the future of Forrester Heights this week, councillors will meet again at the end of the month to make a final decision on the 2.51ha of land overlooking Oamaru Harbour.
As part of the council’s one-and-a-half-month consultation process, the community was given three options to consider for the land and asked if they strongly agreed, agreed, disagreed, strongly disagreed or felt neutral about each one.
About 70% agreed the council should make Forrester Heights a reserve, 30% agreed to selling some or all of the land, and 20% were neutral in leaving it as it is for now.
Most of Forrester Heights is legally classified as endowment land, vested to the council by the Crown to be used for revenue generating purposes for the benefit of the community.
The council also asked submitters how they would like to see money used, if the land was sold. Among the most popular options were helping to fund the new Waitaki Event Centre, creating a new reserve somewhere else in Oamaru and repaying debt.
Hearings were held on Monday and Tuesday, and while 63 submitters were scheduled speak to their submissions, several did not show up. Most of those who did opposed a sale, including Dr Linton Winder who said it would be a ‘‘travesty of local democracy’’ if the council did not honour the majority view of submitters.
‘‘Local democracy works by people contributing to consultation,’’ he said.
Cr Kelli Williams said she believed some of the information being presented to the community by supporters of a reserve had been misleading, and many decisions made in the consultation process had been based on ‘‘inaccurate information’’. Dr Winder did not accept that and claimed the council itself was biased in terms of the information it had provided.
Malcolm McKenzie raised concerns about stability of the land, citing similarities to Abbotsford and fears for a landslide if the land was built on.
He also criticised the council’s consultation document for being confusing, and said it would be ‘‘most offensive’’ if money generated from a sale went towards the Waitaki Event Centre.
Sophia Leon de La Barra, who supported public reserve status, implored councillors to adopt ‘‘seven-generation’’ thinking.
‘‘We’re not thinking about our actions having consequences that are going to benefit just us or our children, but that every action we take affects the great-grandchildren of our grandchildren.’’
Facing a climate change crisis, trees were the ‘‘ultimate tool’’ for carbon sequestration and she suggested the council plant the land in natives, which could generate more money through carbon credits than a one-off sale.
Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher said councillors were not motivated by money, they just wanted the ‘‘right result’’. The council was looking at other opportunities for earning carbon credits, he said.
Friends of Oamaru Harbour co-ordinator Vicki Jayne was strongly opposed to asale of the land. The friends group had instead proposed the establishment of a native forest reserve that would enhance the existing character and provide a valuable recreational, environmental and educational asset for the community.
‘‘What attracts new residents to Oamaru and therefore increases the council’s rates income is not a one-off housing development, it’s the character of the town, its surrounds, its harbour, its green spaces, its sense of community,’’ she said.
‘‘A prominent and expensive housing development dominating the harbour does nothing for any of these.’’
Helen Stead, who was a councillor when a subdivision was mooted in 2010, said she opposed development on Forrester Heights at the time and was ‘‘not popular’’ with her colleagues.
She was pleased the majority of submissions were in favour of making the land a reserve now.
George Kelcher was one of few people who this week spoke in support of a subdivision development, sections of which he believed would be highly sought after and sell for premium prices.
‘‘Currently Forrester Heights in the state that it is does nothing as a backdrop to the Oamaru Harbour area, and I firmly believe a modern subdivision, with top-of-the-range housing, will add many benefits.’’
While Mr Kelcher believed everyone was entitled to their views on any subject, he said considerable ongoing opposition to development on Forrester Heights had been organised by ‘‘relatively few in the community’’, many of whom were ‘‘against progress of any kind’’ in the district and had encouraged submissions by ‘‘not always telling the whole story’’.
He urged the council to look to the future, rather than ‘‘trying to stay in the past’’.
Oamaru resident Jae Omnet said Cape Wanbrow was ‘‘such a valuable asset’’ to Oamaru in ‘‘so many ways’’ and she believed the council could adopt a mixed model, where new houses could be built as well as a walking track to link Cape Wanbrow to the Oamaru township.
She suggested funds from the sale of some land could be used to improve other walking tracks in the North Otago town.
About 60 Oamaru Intermediate School pupils made submissions to the council, many presenting them in person and responding to questions from councillors.
Cr Jim Hopkins was thrilled with the engagement from young people, and the originality and passion of their submissions. The pupils had a range of views, some supporting a sale and others supporting a reserve, and many came up with other uses for the land, including generating income from giant billboards, solar panels, a restaurant, and a geology centre.
Several submitters suggested the issue should be a binding referendum at the October local body elections, and questions were also raised over the cultural significance of the Cape Wanbrow and Forrester Heights land. Councillors sought more information on holding a referendum and from Te Runanga o Moeraki, to be included in the final report.
As councillors read through the hundreds of non-verbal submissions, they stopped several times to clear up misconceptions, call out ‘‘lies’’ and take a stand against some comments directed towards the council, including accusations of corruption and bribery.
Cr Williams said some of the comments were ‘‘offensive beyond belief’’, and she reminded the community that councillors were ‘‘only human’’, voted in by the public to make decisions in the best interests of the district.
Mr Kircher said sometimes councillors had to take name-calling ‘‘on the chin’’, but some of the ‘‘nasty, libellous submissions’’ were ‘‘probably going beyond the pale’’.
Cr Hopkins believed some of the libellous statements should be redacted, but chief executive Alex Parmley warned that the council would need to ‘‘tread carefully’’ if editing people’s submissions.
Mr Kircher also interrupted Annah Evington’s verbal submission presentation, when she said she was ‘‘somewhat gobsmacked’’ the mayor told her Forrester Heights would sell for $1 million to $2 million.
Mr Kircher said he had never stated how much the land would sell for. Instead, he had tried to use examples ‘‘of numbers pulled out of the air’’ so people could think about what the council could use proceeds for.
In response, Ms Evington, who supported reserve status, said if the sale of the land was being considered, the community deserved to know how much it could sell for.
While there had been a lot of discussion about Forrester Heights over the years, this was the first formal consultation carried out by the council, Mr Kircher said. It was an important process and he thanked all of the submitters for having their say.
Council officers have been asked to write a report on Forrester Heights addressing a lot of the concerns raised and questions asked in the consultation process.
The report will be presented at a meeting on June 28, at which time councillors will make a final decision.