Anne Gibson

Property editor of the NZ Herald

Resort developer connects with land

John Darby's first big venture was the luxurious golf and spa retreat Millbrook

John Darby doesn't think of himself as a developer, even though he has created more lifestyle resorts here than any other New Zealander.

"I still think of myself as a landscape architect," he says from Darby Partners' offices at 18 Shortland St alongside PR consultant David Lewis.

Fresh from victory at Te Arai 110km north of Auckland where he joined local Maori to win consent to build 46 luxury houses 200m back from the water, Darby has drawn criticism from shore bird protectionists, particularly over that development's threat to rare fairy tern.

He hopes his opponents won't appeal the independent hearing commissioners' decision and says environmental protection and predator elimination is a significant part of the scheme.

In Auckland, Darby lives on his Viaduct Harbour-moored boat "only because it's there and it's a wee bit of home with me. It's a place for me to get together with my family. I've got adult children from around the world". His permanent residence is a 40ha lifestyle farm with his horse-breeding wife, Kristin.

The son of an ad agency father and descendant of pub-owning Aucklanders, who the CBD's Darby St is named after, he began studying viticulture at what was then Lincoln College outside Christchurch. But the wine industry was not in great shape about 30 years ago so he switched to environmental studies and got a post-graduate in landscape architecture.

"I was interested in land and the environment. I was a keen outdoors guy, I guess. I did a lot of mountaineering so I was thinking of being a park ranger at one stage."

Once he graduated, he tutored for a time, worked at the NZ Forest Research Institute, then the Lands & Survey Department practising landscape architecture in national parks which in 1980 saw him supervising infrastructure at the controversial Queenstown's Remarkables Skifield development.

In the late 1980s he established the Queenstown offices of environmental planning and design consultancy Boffa Miskell where he was a partner, working first on Auckland apartment project Broadway Park then beachfront development Omaha South north of the city.

Darby's first big venture was the luxurious southern golf and spa retreat Millbrook near Lake Hayes in the late 1980s, although he recalls its inauspicious inception around October 1987 when the property market collapsed.

"I managed to convince my partners that this was a good bet and we were successful in selling it to some overseas investment partners," he says, referring to Japanese.

"I bought the farm, did the master planning, got it consented, then sold the project through to investors. It was a very risky way to get paid fees, put it that way."

Darby then spent two years in Beijing, working for the People's Liberation Army developing what was then the city's first golf course "not long after Tiananmen Square so Beijing was not that hospitable but Kiwis seem to be well regarded".

He established Darby Partners to separate consultancy work from assets, then created Christchurch's Clearwater golfing and luxury housing estate, followed by its southern counterpart, Queenstown's 1200ha Jack's Point.

According to a biography Darby bought the land in 2001, rezoned to become Queenstown's designated residential growth zone and was the master planner and development manager.

"He completed hotel operating agreements with the Four Seasons Group, secured pre-sales of 50 per cent of the residential land, and oversaw the completion of substantial infrastructure and amenities before divesting the residential and resort village components to Intrawest Group and an Australian residential land fund in 2006 and 2007," the information says.

Darby Partners says the value of all its developments now exceeds $2 billion.

Connal Townsend, Property Council chief executive, says Darby has been responsible for transformative projects, particularly around Otago, but real estate agent Graham Wall is far more effusive.

"The genius golf course designer? When I see John Darby's name next to something, I know, first, it will be brilliant and, second, it will be sensitive to the environment because he's that kind of guy," Wall says.

"Lots of people want to develop things and have big visions and big stories. But he can point to what he's done and can prove unequivocally that he's the most skilled developer of lifestyle resort properties in New Zealand."

However, Chris Wild of the Te Arai Beach Preservation Society has a different opinion.

"Darby is very skilled at buying property, getting the consents and selling it on and that's how he's made his money, as far as what he said in the press. But for the people on the ground, it's difficult," she says, citing development after-effects.

Commissioners banned cats and dogs at the 46-house Te Arai project but Wild asks who would enforce that.

The battle over the Coromandel's New Chums near Whangapoa also upset many when building there was discussed. With George Kerr and another businessman, Darby has a 200ha farm surrounding the beach, which was voted one of the world's 10 best.

"We've just parked it. But it's been two years and we're discussing how we can go forward. It's a work in progress," he says.

"We're looking to retire stock off the farmland for native cover. This is a farm where the land owners mutually want to get a cohesive plan."

- NZ Herald

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