The battle for Matiatia Bay

By Geoff Cumming

Former newsreader John Hawkesby reckons plans for a flashy new marina at the gateway to Waiheke are tearing the island apart. Geoff Cumming reports

John Hawkesby and Christine Gisby are against plans for a new marina in Matiatia Bay. Photo / Chris Gorman
John Hawkesby and Christine Gisby are against plans for a new marina in Matiatia Bay. Photo / Chris Gorman

"This is Waiheke's Springbok Tour," says John Hawkesby, the bon vivant who has become the mouthpiece of dissent on the former hippie outpost of Waiheke Island.

"There are husbands and wives taking opposite sides, it's brother against brother," says the erudite former TV news presenter turned MC and wine and food commentator.

And neighbour against neighbour. Hawkesby, whose wealth was boosted by an unfair dismissal payout from TVNZ, says he retreated to his elegant property overlooking Church Bay to grow grapes and olives and live quietly. His neighbour is his nemesis: Graham Guthrie, a retired businessman who is fronting a proposed marina in the Hauraki Gulf island's gateway, Matiatia Bay.

Since plans for the marina surfaced six years ago, it has grown from a boutique affair in a corner of the bay into one with 160 berths, twin rock breakwaters and pontoons that will effectively cut off half the bay where fast ferries daily deposit thousands of tourists and commuters from Auckland. Dredging will be needed for an inshore access channel so boats can steer clear of the ferry lane; the sediment will help fill a 3000cu m reclamation needed for a 55-space car park.

For arriving passengers, it is the view to the left of the ferry terminal - currently a crescent of pebbly beach fringed by pohutukawas with boats on swing moorings in the foreground - that would be lost.

The scheme's supporters say visitors will hardly notice it - that Matiatia is simply a transit port whose beauty was long ago compromised by the terminal, acres of car parking, moored boats and look-at-me houses on its enveloping hills. Opponents say it is a privatisation of the water space that will benefit mainly wealthy boat owners and, with berth leases ranging from $50,000 to $200,000, make its handful of backers even richer.

The Auckland Council has batted the application straight up to the Environment Court and 800 people have lodged submissions, more than 550 in opposition.

Guthrie, who made his fortune selling hi-fi, has hardly helped win over the locals with a throwaway line that any opposition would come from "the barefoot brigade".

So Hawkesby sponsored a full-page ad in island newspaper Gulf News featuring mugshots of some seriously well-heeled opponents: Graeme Hart, Sir Peter Leitch, Sir Ralph Norris, Sir Graham Henry, Ruth Foreman and Bruce Plested, among others.

Waiheke is a "village surrounded by water" where people speak forthrightly and generally agree to differ: feuding over development and direction is part of the island's culture. But this is not just a fight between rich neighbours, nor haves and have nots, hippies and progressives or residents vs absentee owners. It's all of those and more.

"If the marina goes ahead, it will be the lightning rod for the urbanisation of Waiheke," Hawkesby says. "People will look back and say 'that was the moment Waiheke changed forever'."

Here's where the conspiracy theories start. On the other side of the wharf, stretching inland along the valley floor, the Auckland Council owns 7ha, currently a giant car park. In 2012, concept plans were drawn up for intensive use of the site, which the council paid millions for after a previous development debacle. Ideas included apartments, a backpackers' hostel, bars and restaurants, marine-related industries and shops.

Auckland Council Properties Ltd, responsible for the council's property assets, says the plans are "parked" and, before anything happens, a "strategic master plan" needs to be developed for the heavily trafficked area, co-ordinated by the local board.

Chief executive David Rankin says if the marina proceeds it will "be taken into account". Hawkesby says that will be too late.

Christine Gisby, chairwoman of Destination Matiatia, the group formed to oppose the development, says a marina would change the experience of visitors who come to Waiheke to "get away from it all" and enjoy its uncrowded beaches, vineyards and views.

It's an experience summed up by a bumper sticker: "Waiheke - far enough behind to be ahead", and one which attracts people in droves - from the Aucklanders who snapped up property for holiday homes in the 1990s and later settled here to its latterday status as a resort name-checked by celebrities and ranked by Trip Advisor among the top 10 island destinations in the world. The visiting England rugby team enjoyed lunch at Onetangi last week. During the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the French (and their supporters) made the island home.

With its horseshoe-shaped harbour, enveloping hills and bush plantings slowly hiding the lifestyle blocks, Matiatia is a tantalising shop window for these attractions, says Gisby, who runs guided tours on the island.

"When the ferry enters the bay, the tourists get out their cameras. As people get off the ferry, all the concrete and pace and stress of the city disappears. We don't have traffic lights or high-rise buildings - people don't want another downtown Auckland here."

Gisby says the first stop for many tours is on Delamore Drive, with views over the bay and across the water to Auckland.

"People love seeing the bobbing boats and the pohutukawas. It's just idyllic.

"Any decisions about the bay should be based on what's important for the tourism industry and what's appropriate. It's not appropriate for a private person to take half of it and do what he likes."

Kathryn Ngapo, who helped organise a hikoi against the proposal, says a marina would erode the sense of arrival in a safe harbour. "When you come into Matiatia you get an idea of the brand of the island. It's sort of casual but sort of elegant. It's round and sheltering and a quite beautiful backdrop for many things.

"People are going to come into the bay and what they will see is two huge rock walls about 4m high at low tide. They will no longer see the curve of the beach. That's a big price to pay for 160 marina berths that don't benefit anyone other than marina holders."

One of the few to vouch publicly for the proposal is Brad Butterworth. In a letter to the Gulf News in January, Butterworth expressed disappointment at the "vitriol" aimed at Guthrie and his family and said more than 250 prospective berth owners were signed up. The veteran America's Cup and round-the-world yachtsman said safety was a key issue for the island's ageing population of boat owners and it was often "a mission" to get out to a swing mooring by dinghy. The marina would have a smaller footprint than the current swing mooring zone and cater for many more local boats. Its construction would create local jobs and ongoing small businesses. His arguments have some support.

"It's better to go where the infrastructure is already there, than to destroy somewhere else on the island," says Peter Dawson, who lives up the road from the wharf. "It's something that the island needs and Matiatia is already destroyed with the port." Dawson says many locals support the idea - though few will say so publicly.

Hawkesby says the campaign has cost him friends but he feels deeply committed to the cause. He and Guthrie remain on speaking terms - "We leave the guns at the door - I've tried to keep the humour in it."

Some locals wish Hawkesby would just shut up. Though debate bubbles along in the local press (the Gulf News has been unashamedly critical), it's been around for a while. There are other issues on the fast-changing island and most seem happy to let the Environment Court process unfold.

Hawkesby says his "ranting and raving" is needed to drum up funds for a hearing (expected in September) which may take weeks. The applicants have 18 expert witnesses lined up. Destination Matiatia estimates it needs $200,000 to fight the case with its own experts.

The stance of local Maori may be pivotal. The bay and its headland pa were fought over in pre-European times. Warriors slain in battle were sometimes left in the shallows and koiwi (bones) and urupa (burial grounds) have been identified in the seabed and foreshore on both sides of the bay. Ngati Paoa, who have mana whenua status, have not lodged a submission. A report for the applicants by consultant Pita Rikys, who has previously represented Ngati Paoa on the island, says the presence of koiwi and urupa in the northern bay is unproven and submitters' claims that the area is waahi tapu (sacred) are "extravagant".

However, Waiheke's pan-iwi marae, Piritahi, strongly opposes the marina. Marae committee chairman Paora Toi Te Rangiuaia says the remains of those slain in battle may have been washed away but their imprint on the landscape remains tangible. "For me, that's a waahi tapu." During ceremonies, Toi te Rangiuaia acknowledges those who died in the bay. "Should the marina go ahead we will have to direct our acknowledgments to the dredgings under the carpark.

"At the moment we can visualise what was there. The moment you stick a 160-berth marina there we will have to extinguish it from the mind's eye to retrieve those memories.

"It feels like a violation is about to occur."

His objections are not solely spiritual: "A lot of people on the island find it obscene that a rich person can sit up on the hill and make money out of the commons."

Unfortunately for opponents, planning laws don't deal especially well with spiritual and emotional values - nor matters of perception such as experiences of a view or impacts on natural character. The Resource Management Act and its spin-offs are more comfortable with tangible aspects like breakwater engineering, stormwater discharges and traffic management. And, despite what developers and their political allies say, the legislation is permissive. If applicants persuade the judge that the effects are "less than minor" or can be mitigated, they have a shot.

In this case, the analysis of landscape and natural character impacts by the applicant's consultants - that the marina "will not detract significantly from appreciation of the wider landscape and seascape" - is largely supported by both council planner Nicole Bremner and a council-commissioned peer review by landscape architect Stephen Brown.

Bremner finds it "unlikely that the marina would impact on tourism numbers". The bay is not rated an outstanding landscape and is modified in character - "a veritable 'melting pot' for a range of residential, maritime, commercial and transport related activities", says Brown.

But Bremner nevertheless recommends against the proposal, partly because of significant impacts for the handful of homeowners overlooking the marina and for visitors to the adjoining beach reserve.

The applicants maintain the marina is needed to respond to local demand and there is no more appropriate location. Although they have previously debated the proposal in the media, they declined to be interviewed for this article and refused to respond to submitted questions, citing the court process now under way.

Just why it grew from a discreet set of floating pontoons for a few ageing boaties into something much bigger is the subject of speculation on the island. Guthrie is an old salt who kept a beautiful Townson yacht on a swing mooring when he came to live on Waiheke, he told the Gulf News in early 2011. He sold the yacht partly because of access issues and difficulty giving it the care and maintenance it deserved, he said. He bought a launch and decided to investigate the opportunities for a marina.

"I have never done anything like this before," he later told the Herald. "I just simply want a place to park my boat.

"[It] would be really nice to have it built in my lifetime so I can get some benefit out of it."

He claimed 30 of the 50 swing mooring holders in the northern bay were interested in a berth. Many boaties on the island had to keep their craft in Auckland marinas because there was nowhere else to put them. "By having their boats here they free up space in town for others and will get more use out of their boats ..."

Development costs at the time were estimated at $10 million. But as its scope and costs grew, some early seed funders withdrew. Enter marina developer Philip Wardale and local property developer Anthony Pope. Companies Office records show that in April the pair registered three companies, Aniram (that's marina spelt backwards) Developments; Aniram Investments and Aniram Finance. Requests to explain the purpose of the companies drew a blank. Nor will the applicants disclose the estimated cost of a development including two rock breakwaters (with rock barged from Thames), floating pontoons and finger berths, the carpark reclamation and dredging. Allowing for settling time for the breakwaters, development is expected to span more than two years.

Gisby says the idea that the marina is to meet local needs - "so ageing boaties like Guthrie can get on and off their pleasure craft with their grandchildren " - no longer holds water.

Marinas tend to work as real estate investments - berths generally more than hold their value and change hands for six-figure sums. Wardale is a former director and general manager of Bayswater Marina, which sold for more than $10 million five years after it was built.

In a Gulf News interview in March last year, Guthrie emphasised that Waiheke's boating community was changing. "We are no longer a quiet corner where people live in their $10,000 baches. The vast majority of people have high-value boats. Insurance firms are getting increasingly reluctant to cover a boat bobbing off a mooring on a bit of line."

Lease prices for berths would range from $50,000 to $200,000. But fears that most leaseholders would not be locals were unfounded.

"Yes, we do have people who live off the island. The list has one person who lives in London and one in Hong Kong. Both of these people intend to retire here."

In January he told the Herald: "I have 250 people champing at the bit waiting to go and there are only 160 berths. It's not huge like Half Moon Bay or Gulf Harbour. All we want is a place to park our boats."

- NZ Herald

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