Environment key to Coromandel disputes

By Jamie Morton

From surf breaks to deep underground mines, controversies over how to balance the development and preservation of the peninsula are coming to a head.

Whangamata surfer Paul Shanks says the famous surf break is being destroyed by continual dredging for the marina.  Photo / Alan Gibson
Whangamata surfer Paul Shanks says the famous surf break is being destroyed by continual dredging for the marina. Photo / Alan Gibson

* Whangamata - Wave of discontent

If you want to see Paul Shanks' eyes light up, get him talking about surfing the world-famous Whangamata Bar.

That perfect cylinder of water - a barrelling left-hander with a beautiful peel - was once good enough to be once dubbed the "jewel of the Pacific" by legendary Hawaiian surfer Gerry Lopez.

At least that's the way it used to be, said former Kiwi surfing champ Shanks.

He and other local surfers claim their wave has been "broken" by an ongoing sand dredging regime ensuring vessels can pass through a 1.5km canal at Whangamata's seamouth into the community marina.

This is an old story in the breezy surf town, where controversy seems at odds with its laid-back air.

It took developers a 17-year legal battle and cost them $2 million before the 205-berth marina was eventually given the go-ahead six years ago.

They had been warned as early as 2000 that dredging the Whangamata Harbour could disturb the finely-balanced surf break, which is fed from a sandy buffer at the harbourmouth rather than a headland or rocky seabed.

Today the issue still divides the town.

Mr Shanks and the Surfbreak Protection Society contend the marina society has been dredging more material than it is allowed to under its consent.

He said every dredge has had a noticeable effect on the surf break, which was included among a list of protected surf breaks in 2010.

A recent report by the society claimed the marina was dredging up to its new consented maximum of 10,000m3.

Specifically, it's concerned around the "lift and drift" method for maintenance dredging, capped at 100m3 every 30 days but can be done without the need for a consent.

The society claims the amount being moved in each of these dredges at 1200m3 at least, and is calling for better, tighter and independent monitoring and surveying.

Attempts by the society to have each dredge publicly notified have been rejected and, last month, it accused the Waikato Regional Council of ignoring monitoring the dredging.

"The dredging regime is detrimental to the quality of the wave ... and we feel the council should be supporting us because it's in the national legislation," Mr Shanks said.

"The town is already split over the issue, and we want to find a compromise."

Both the marina society and Waikato Regional Council have disputed the report's findings.

Marina society manager John Gillooly said it was "loaded with factual inaccuracies and innuendo producing no new scientific information".

He said the society was operating within its consent, and the Surfbreak Protection Society did "not have any tangible and credible evidence to the contrary".

"Coastal scientists advise that it is important to realise that there is nothing normal about any bar. A bar is a dynamic and constantly changing environment."

Council spokesman Brent Sinclair backed the marina society, which had shown a "high level" of compliance with the consent condition.

The council had, however, requested independent surveys to confirm the actual volumes of sands being disturbed by the "lift and drift" maintenance dredging.

"This is being done."

* Whangapoua - Protecting paradise

Peter Johnston still remembers the first time he made the journey across the Pungapunga rivermouth, over rocks and a bushy saddle, and into the hidden paradise that is New Chum Beach.

He guesses he was about 4 years old at the time.

Sheltered by Wainuiototo Bay, a half-hour trek from Whangapoua, the pristine, secluded hideaway holds a special place in the heart of those who have set foot on its fine white sand.

Mr Johnston considers the spot - singled out among the world's best by UK's Observer newspaper and called "one of the most breathtakingly stunning places in the world" by TV host Phil Keoghan - as Coromandel's last unspoiled bay.

"Apart from that bay, I don't know any other on the Coromandel Peninsula that is untouched ... every other one has been developed in some shape and form."

The local iwi leader said it was the beach's isolation that had preserved it and kept it from the reach of developers - at least that was until 2009 when plans for a new subdivision at the back of the beach went public.

A Queenstown developer who owns land down to the high-tide mark originally wanted 20 houses, eight of them tucked around the bay, along with a boatshed and ramp toward the beach's northern end.

The backlash was enormous - outraged locals filled a Whitianga hall, a Facebook page quickly drew nearly 5000 members and celebrities rallied to the beach.

Keoghan himself weighed in, as did TV star Robyn Malcolm, All Black Richard Kahui and journalist Anita McNaught, who was married at the beach.

There were hopes the Government would step in and buy the land - letters spelt out 20m high on the beach read: "John Key Save Me!" - but these were dashed when a $10 million state valuation fell short of the developer's expectations.

The group Preserve New Chum for Everyone has kept the pressure on, collecting hundreds of signatures for a petition.

Their fight took major turns last month - first when the landowners scratched the original plan and lodged a scaled-back proposal to the Thames-Coromandel District Council, and later when they agreed to a series of round-table meetings.

The new plans, now with 12 houses mainly around Whangapoua and none visible from the beach, will go through a new consultation process and the council is considering whether to publicly notify it.

All parties will meanwhile work toward creating a protection and enhancement plan for the beach.

Preserve New Chum for Everyone chairman Grahame Christian called the agreement a major milestone for the group.

"This journey has taken over a year of negotiation but it's been worth every step."

* Te Kouma - Wharf extension row

The view over Te Kouma, just south of Coromandel town, has changed much over the years.

What used to be an empty Waipapa Bay is now clustered with mussel boats which serve the local aquaculture industry, the area's biggest employer.

Locals say that when a wharf facility was built in the 1990s down at the sugarloaf - a distinctive rock pointing out from the bay - there was an understanding there wouldn't be further expansion. But the site has now been earmarked for a new multimillion-dollar wharf extension.

Now, worried residents fear the bay could be transformed into a noisy industrial eyesore. The proposed expansion would help accommodate huge projected growth in the Coromandel's aquaculture industry, expected to double its annual output of mussels and oysters to about 60,000 tonnes by 2025.

This would bring $60 million to the region, along with 350 new jobs.

By the same time, the region's finfish industry is forecast to generate $45 million nationally, creating 473 new jobs.

For Gary Bowler, whose home overlooks the bay, there are worries over the glare from floodlights and the noise from vessel engines spilling into his house at all hours.

"We were willing to see the industry have the facility available, but we didn't want to see it become a heavy industrial site," he said.

Waipapa Bay Protection Society chairman Russell De Luca expected a business plan being drawn up would confirm the site and the Thames-Coromandel District Council would push ahead with a resource consent application.

"But once it gets to the resource consent stage, it'll be a whole new ball game because the council won't be hearing the application itself," he said.

"That's a whole new process and we expect to get a fair hearing."

The issue was more about preserving amenity values for the future than individual gripes.

"Our fundamental concerns are environmental, which we believe are valid and intend to push to the limit."

Council spokesman Benjamin Day admitted a better job could be done managing the facility, and there were plans to limit its hours of operation and hire a manager to run the site.

A memorandum of understanding with the industry would be drafted during consultation next year and residents and other stakeholders would also get to have their say.

"I have to say that the industry gets blamed for a lot of recreational fisher noise down there."

In choosing the site for development, it was seen as an existing site and the least costly and environmentally damaging option. More crucially for the region, it meant jobs.

"We know families are leaving our district and we need permanent jobs. We are committed to the sugarloaf but we've got to manage that in a coastal marine environment ... we're not going to please everybody."

* Waihi - Underground rumble

For Waihi, the benefits that a huge mining programme dubbed the Golden Link would bring seem hard to argue with.

The new venture - an expanded mine up to 350m below an area in the eastern side of town and new exploration below the open-cast Martha Mine - could pump further hundreds of millions of dollars into the region and maintain continuous employment for 650 people for the next decade.

For Newmont Waihi Gold, the local face of the world's largest gold producer, the potential gold and silver waiting to be unearthed could top $1 billion.

Newmont accounts for about a quarter of the GDP of Waihi, providing jobs and annually more than $2 million to the community that markets itself as "New Zealand's heart of gold".

But not everyone in Waihi thinks Newmont has been good for the town - and the company will hit a wall of opposition when its proposed new Correnso mine below Waihi East reaches hearings over its resource consent application in December.

The public submissions period closed last week.

Some objectors, who last month went to the Environment Court to challenge a Government-approved variation allowing Newmont to burrow beneath the giant Martha pit, see the Correnso hearings as the bigger battle.

Both sides are sure this will also head to the Environment Court.

A proposed timeline has the mine opening by 2015, and despite opposition, one person submitting against the plan, Distressed Residents Action Team leader Collette Spalding, doubts much will change that happening.

"Speaking from our experience, they'll get the mine and we'll get the shaft."

Newmont says the number of homes potentially affected by Correnso sits under 50 and all of these residents have been consulted.

The company is offering compensation for physical mining effects, such as noise and vibration, and has also agreed to buy a number of homes a year and provide cash top-ups ensuring houses sell for market value.

Ms Spalding said effects on individual homeowners was the common thread in opposition to the plan, which she would have no issue with if it wasn't beneath a residential area.

Some were simply stuck, left unable to find a buyer or a price good enough to help clear the mortgage on a new home of equal standard.

And then there was putting up with Newmont's tailings dam operating for another decade.

Some residents say the stigma from mining effects have discouraged potential newcomers.

In Waihi East, one long-time real estate agent said the new programme had made the market so tough he likened it to the fall-out from Christchurch.

Newmont disputes this, saying houses are selling, and for good prices.

Spokesman Sefton Darby said the Correnso programme would also bring more funding for schools and early childhood centres in Waihi East, a separate budget of $200,000 each year for the life of the project, and a home insulation scheme 120 households have signed up to.

The amount of blasting causing possible vibrations above would be restricted to under 60 seconds per day, and would not be done during the hours people slept.

If not for the Correnso project, he said, Newmont would leave town.

"There's the hard economic data over jobs, but I think what people kind of underestimate is that you've got several hundred kids in schools in this community that are from mine families," he said.

"So it actually does link back to the provision of social services, it links back to schools, the number of doctors, the cafes you have in town ... I think crudely we talk about jobs when there's actually a hell of a lot more to the community."

Whangamata
What: Marina dredging blamed for damaging a famous surf break.
Who: Local surfers and Surfbreak Protection Society challenging marina society and Waikato Regional Council.
Now: Council investigating marina society's dredging regime.

Whangapoua
What: Ongoing opposition to development around unspoiled New Chum Beach.
Who: Developers against protest group Preserve New Chum for Everyone.
Now: New plan centred away from the beach just lodged, possible compromise to be reached.

Te Kouma
What: Some Te Kouma locals against industry-funded expansion of wharf facility to meet projected growth in aquaculture industry.
Who: Waipapa Bay Protection Society to fight proposal by Thames-Coromandel District Council.
Now: Business case being drawn up. Resource consent hearings likely next year.

Waihi
What: Mining company Newmont Waihi Gold planning two-part mining expansion beneath Waihi.
Who: Some residents opposed to the Newmont plan.
Now: Submissions period on most controversial stage now closed, opposition to continue over months ahead.

- NZ Herald

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