Report by Dylan Thorne
Dinah Connon and her six-year-old son James had the middle of Te Arai Beach to themselves yesterday.
Solid 2m waves crashed beyond the shallows and a strong northerly wind wound its way down the coast. The water was a little less than warm but it's not often you get a beach to yourself.
"I asked my son whether he wanted to go to the wild beach where there'll be no one there, or Mangawhai Heads," Mrs Connon said. "Of course he wanted to go to the wild beach."
Lined by dunes and pine plantations, the beach was "one of the most beautiful" she has seen.
However, locals fear such idyllic, uncrowded, scenes could be a thing of the past if plans for a massive subdivision get the go ahead.
The land involved is part of a 1600ha block near Te Arai Beach, 9km south of Mangawhai, given to Kaipara sub-tribe Te Uri o Hau under a 2002 Treaty of Waitangi settlement worth $15.6 million.
It is being developed by Te Uri o Hau in partnership with Darby Partners.
The development plans include subdividing for between 1400 and 2000 homes, building a golf course and setting up a campground over 650ha.
The plans and other subdivisions in the area have some locals fearing the quiet seaside settlement will become "another Orewa".
Mrs Connon, an Aucklander who has a holiday home in Mangawhai, says opinion is split.
"I know people who are for it and against it. The main concern people have is the impact it will have on the ecology of the beach."
A report commissioned by the Department of Conservation expressed concern that the development could push the fairy tern - with a population under 50 - to extinction.
The assessment contradicts another commissioned by Te Uri O Hau and Darby Partners, which said environmental effects could be managed by a ban on cats and restrictions on dogs.
"In an ideal situation it (the area) would be left as it is but there is always going to be people who want a part of it and financial interests in it," Mrs Connon said.
While everyone was entitled to enjoy the area, such large-scale development could destroy it.
"It's a good community but is it going to be another Orewa? That's what people want to know."
Allan and Sheila Foster's 20ha property borders the block.
They bought their property in 1988 and left Auckland three years ago to retire in their "Garden of Eden".
They now fear the rat-race is catching up with them.
"Quite honestly, I feel that if they get permission there is nothing we can do about it," he said.
His main concern was water supply.
Houses and farms in the area relied on tank and bore water and a large-scale development would place extra pressure on the supply.
"We don't want another Orewa here. We moved here to get away from it," he said.
Their neighbours Marty and Wendy Westlake had similar concerns. Mrs Westlake believed the development would affect the environment and change the nature of the area.
"I'd like to see it stay the same, but realistically that's not going to happen," Mr Westlake said.
The developers, Darby Partners, did not respond by edition time.
* Endangered bird heart of debate
Much of the controversy around the Te Arai development has centred around a rare shorebird called the fairy tern.
Fewer than 50 are thought to survive, breeding only at Pakiri, Waipu, Mangawhai Heads and Papakanui Spit in the Kaipara Harbour.
The developers, backed by a report from Whangarei's Wildlands Consultants, say a ban on cats and tight restrictions on dogs at the new subdivision would protect the fairy terns.
However, Auckland naturalist Brian Parkinson - who was an expert witness on the birds in an earlier dispute over development at Mangawhai, and is the author of The Field Guide to New Zealand Seabirds - disagrees.
With so much beachfront development in Northland, 4WDs and dogs, the fairy terns could not take any more pressure.
"They're on a knife-edge as it is ... they don't need any help from property developers to shove them over."
Mr Parkinson said the proposed pet restrictions were "totally unenforceable".
"You'll always get some fruitloop trying to sneak a dog or cat past," he said.
Last June a feral tomcat was shot at the Mangawhai sandspit, but only after it had been eating into the fairy tern population for two years.