Locals are divided about what should happen to a $1m section in Tauranga's CBD. The land sits adjacent to The Elms at 11 Mission St. How and whether to transfer ownership of the historic land from Tauranga City Council to the Ōtamataha Trust has been hotly contested amid heightened racial tensions. Did council promise land to The Elms? Why do people oppose a transfer to Māori interests and what happens if the shift takes place? Dawn Picken takes a closer look.
Submissions and cynicism
The proposed transfer of land at 11 Mission St to the Ōtamataha Trust has done more than attract comments, it has also inflamed passions and highlighted prejudices.
The trust, which represents Ngāi Tamarāwaho and Ngati Tapu interests, submitted a claim last year for the land in recognition of their mana whenua status and ancestral connection.
Tauranga City councillors in December voted to approve the plan, subject to negotiations and public consultation.
Tauranga City Council has received 791 submissions regarding the plan, with 310 (39 per cent) in support, 461 (58 per cent) opposed and 20 (3 per cent) unclear or unknown.
Some opponents expressed frustration by invoking race. Submission No 7 said, "Once the building is burnt down, the historical value/association is lost, and they will sell our land for Asian-owned apartments/or build iwi dosshouses ... the whole Bay of Plenty is being given away, and it will never be enough. The burglaries, rapes, child murders & car theft will continue unabated."
Tauranga resident Ken Evans stirred controversy during the August 1 council meeting when he compared the proposed land transfer to the Christchurch mosque shootings.
"What do councillors not understand happened in the Christchurch massacre? I raise this question and the racist actions ... drive another wedge in race relations within our city ... It only needs a small spark to start a raging fire and I believe the pressure of tribal demands is reaching danger levels."
Councillor Steve Morris fired back, saying Evans was citing a tragedy to make a "shameless" political point.
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"Are you suggesting that if there was a massacre in Tauranga that person would have the defence of provocation because of the actions of Tauranga City Council?
"Have you no shame, sir?"
Submission 492 said, "Why give away property owned by the ratepayers? We will still have to pay for the upkeep. The Māoris won't bother ... to look after it."
Similar sentiments included submissions Nos 716, 741, 770 and 795:
"Do not give it back to the Māoris when they don't help there [sic] own people."
"Please don't gift this land to Māori - no no no! - no more freebies."
"I don't see why it should go to a Māori trust as they will not pay to maintain it and it was occupied by Europeans originally."
"I am absolutely opposed to any transfer to a Māori trust. Tauranga City Council is too pro-Māori."
Submitters on the pro-transfer side often cited fairness as a reason the Ōtamataha Trust should get the land:
No 35: "It is the least we could do in recognition of injustices."
No 799: "The iwi deserves the mana of knowing it is theirs."
No 772: "The tangata whenua is proven to be the best guardians of our land causing it no harm and retaining it for everyone."
No 613: "The right thing to do to mend and strengthen relationships moving forward."
No 743: "A very practical way to show how we as a people in Tauranga at last are coming together."
No 622: Good idea to "... recognise the shared history of our city".
No 624: "I believe this land is rightfully theirs." [the Ōtamataha Trust's]
Western Bay councillor Margaret Murray-Benge, who's also running for mayor of Western Bay of Plenty District Council, tells the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend, ''There are councillors on Tauranga City who are worried that if an unjustified decision like this is made, it could make other areas like Kulim Park vulnerable."
Murray-Benge says Treaty settlements are for the Crown, not local ratepayers, to fund.
"It's got nothing to do with Māori. I wouldn't care who the other body was. You just don't play that sort of game when you've got ratepayers' money involved."
In fact, Kulim Park may already be in play: A Bay of Plenty Times article in June quoted Buddy Mikaere, of Ngai Tamarawaho, saying they wanted to discuss transferring ownership of land at Kulim Park to the hapū, which would lease it back on a peppercorn rent as part of a joint management arrangement.
Mikaere said the foreshore was part of a famous historical record where a missionary described seeing a thousand waka lined up along the shore.
History and an apology
Even the history of The Elms site is contested. Tauranga Historical Society member Beth Bowden submitted a presentation to the city council earlier this month outlining the significance of the property. Bowden wrote the Church Missionary Society, expressed in 1855: "Land ... was acquired ... solely for the purposes of the Mission, and the possession of it intended to promote through the Mission, the spiritual welfare ... and permanent benefit to the Natives ..."
Bowden wrote the society believes the force of the 2004 finding of the Waitangi Tribunal was that the award of the Te Papa block to the CMS [Church Missionary Society] in 1852 was in breach of the Treaty of Waitangi.
"Nothing, now, will restore to the descendants of Ngati Tapu, Ngai Tamarawaho, and Ngai Tukairangi the 240 hectares of the Te Papa peninsula that Deacon Brown traded for goods worth 'near L200' in 1839 ... original permission to occupy 19th century Te Papa, by anyone, Māori or Pākehā, was of a shared and conditional nature."
The former Church Missionary Society Mission Station was founded in 1835. The country's oldest freestanding library was built in 1837; the Mission House was completed in 1847. The entire site is a historic area, located among heritage sites including the Mission Cemetery and the Monmouth Redoubt.
According to the Tauranga Historical Society website, the site for the mission station was selected by Reverend Alfred Brown in 1834. To consolidate the CMS presence at Te Papa, Brown made two purchases of land, one of 12.5 hectares in 1838 and a second of 240 hectares in 1839. Deeds of sale were signed by local chiefs. Raupo huts that formed the original accommodation for the missionaries were gradually replaced by the present house, constructed of kauri logs brought down from Whitianga.
Prior to being visited by missionaries in the 1820s the site was occupied by local hapū and used as a pā, meaning local hapū lived, cared for their gardens and traded there.
Last December, Anglican Church leaders publicly apologised to Ngai Tamarawaho and Ngāti Tapu hapū over the sale of land known as Te Papa Block from The Elms to Gate Pa to the government.
After the battle of Gate Pa, the Battle of Te Ranga and the Bush campaign, the Crown put pressure on the church to sell the land to the Crown for European settlement.
Archdeacons Brown and Henry Williams protested several times, but in the end, Brown caved in.
In 1867, the Church Mission Society Central Lands Board resold 423 hectares of the land to the government without seeking hapū agreement.
Anglican Bishop of Waiapu Andrew Hedge last year described the church's failure as a "basic moral error" and said the apology was made with an "overwhelming sense of grief".
Transfer opponent Murray-Benge disputes historical accounts that have been presented to council, telling the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend, "Bishops apologised to local Māori for taking their land and that was based on a myth".
Murray-Benge claims the stolen land story is untrue.
"It was bought and paid for by the missionaries and there were about 13 local leaders of Māoridom that endorsed it and they paid for it and then Reverend Brown bought it outright for his family."
Barbara Steele, who described herself as a "concerned citizen," made a submission to Council August first stating the Ōtamataha people have no legitimate claim on land surrounding The Elms.
Steele said the Ōtamataha Pa site was unoccupied between 1828 and 1838 when Reverend Brown negotiated the purchase of 30 acres on behalf of the Church Mission Society.
Steele said, "At the time of purchase Brown described the area as 'a treeless waste'."
She said the site was purchased twice: Brown bought 30 acres for the CMS in 1838, then paid cash for 17 acres in 1873.
Steele opposes the land transfer to the Ōtamataha Trust. "It was never confiscated land."
She suggests the trust looks to another site, including property along Cliff Rd, if it wishes to reconnect with ancestral land.
Bowden's submission supports the transfer of 11 Mission St to the Ōtamataha Trust, though she notes, "a straightforward gift to The Elms Foundation does seem to have been the eventual intention when the TCC purchased the property in 2006".
Bowden wrote, "It is a well-worn truism that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Since opportunities to break the repetitive pattern of Pākehā occupation and control of land in Te Papa are rare, the society encourages council to depart from the worthy but narrow intentions that lay behind the purchase decision of 2006.
"We promote a wider, more inclusive view of the history of this peninsula. We see strong symbolic and, eventually, historic value in making 11 Mission St over to the Ōtamataha Trust so that they may, in conjunction with The Elms Foundation, give expression to some of the hopes and ideals expressed at the time of the original missionary occupation."
The Elms Foundation has been officially neutral on the transfer issue. Chairman Ian Thomas has been approached for comment.
Elms trustee Stuart Crosby says The Elms will accept whatever the council decides.
"We have deliberately not gotten involved in this debate - it was between council and the community."
Council spending and expectations
[Former Tauranga mayor Stuart Crosby says ownership of The Elms should remain with the City of Tauranga./Photo: file]
The 1400m sq piece of land at 11 Mission St was given a rateable value this year of $1.07 million. Council bought the property in 2006 for the expected future development of the neighbouring Elms site.
An NZME 2012 article stated, "The Tauranga City Council has paid $2 million over the past seven years (from 2005) to help protect the historic Elms Mission House from the threat of development springing up on its doorstep."
In 2006, the council paid $825,000 for the property at 11 Mission St on the eastern boundary of The Elms. In May, 2010, the council contributed $400,000 towards the $1.29 million purchase of another adjoining section.
The Elms Foundation leases the land from the council and in 2011 requested ownership of the property be transferred to it for free.
Crosby, a Bay of Plenty Regional councillor who served as mayor from 2004-2016, tells Bay of Plenty Times Weekend the expectation was 11 Mission St would become part of The Elms estate.
But it didn't happen during his tenure because, "... at that point, The Elms was going through some governance changes. It was establishing itself with a new board and developing new plans. The rationale was Tauranga City Council would wait until all that was in place before proceeding."
Crosby says while transferring the land to the Ōtamataha Trust, then leasing it to The Elms in perpetuity might be workable, it's not, in his view, the best solution.
"The best scenario is that the land is handed back to The Elms directly. The second best option is what's being proposed by Tauranga City Council for consultation."
The foundation planned to develop the property as a reception and education centre for The Elms with facilities to maintain and display its heritage collection.
In a split decision, the council agreed in December in principle - subject to negotiations and public consultation - to transfer 11 Mission St to the Ōtamataha Trust at no cost.
The trust and foundation had met and agreed to the basic ownership and rental structure.
Council records show before officials consulted with the community, councillors signed heads of agreement with the Ōtamataha Trust. The non-binding agreement set out the terms of the land transfer.
Discussion of the agreement sparked concerns from some councillors the deal would create a precedent for public land on the Te Papa peninsula - from Gate Pā north - to be given back to original iwi owners.
Councillor John Robson during a meeting in December said he was "concerned about opening the door to that even a little bit", and feared principles behind the agreement could lead to recommendations the council transfer all of its land on the peninsula to iwi, then lease it back.
Tauranga ratepayer Richard Prince in March told the council it had not fully considered implications of giving the land to the trust and it would "strengthen the demands for future claims for Tauranga City Council land".
Councillor Larry Baldock, who supports the Ōtamataha Trust request, this week said the plan would help The Elms Foundation fulfil its master plan. "... and at the same time, if we're able to address historical issues and recognise the longer history of the place and it seems acceptable to the Elms Trust at this stage ... then why not? No one's losing out. The trust is getting what it asked for."
Baldock says The Elms case must be considered independent of other land issues.
"You don't not do the right thing just because there's something else that might need to be put right. History acknowledges there were many things that happened around the Battle of Gate Pa that were not right and we're working through all that. Under the local Government Act, we are to improve the decision-making and the relationship with iwi - they are to be considered."
Importance of the land to local tangata whenua
Peri Kohu, Ngai Tamarawaho kaumatua for the Ōtamataha Trust, says the proposed transfer is about fair play and cultural integration.
"The Elms Trust is only half the story."
Kohu says Tauranga ratepayers must realise land they're sitting on was taken from tangata whenua.
"There's a lot of education that needs to go on about that. It's been pushed under the carpet for 150 years or so ... It isn't just the Pākehā ratepayer, our people, we're part of the ratepayers. We might be the biggest landowners in Tauranga."
Kohu says benefits to all of Tauranga would include having Māori in the public domain.
"It doesn't take a visionary person to see, if we're not part of the story in Tauranga, we do ourselves a disservice; Tauranga does itself a disservice. Māori in Tauranga still reside on the native reserves they were assigned to in less enlightened times, so they live with it every day ...
"Māori in Tauranga are used to broken promises but as part of all that I've seen changes and I've seen progress being made."
However, Kohu laments divisiveness that has emerged during the property debate.
"As we learn more about each other we have to dismantle the perceived prejudices we're sharing at the moment. Someone as old as Margaret [Murray-Benge] is should've learned a few things by now."
Kohu says he's not surprised by some of the comments, just disappointed.
"That's dangerous, tarring all of them, talking about Māori in general is so dangerous."
As for the idea the deal will set off an iwi land grab, Kohu says, "Council's given up land before, but no one's given up as much land as we have ... We'll continue to identify land that's no longer needed and will ask for that... the prudent politician has got to know the exclusion of Māori is to their detriment ... we have more to offer than what is accepted at the moment."
Kohu says 11 Mission St is not the endgame.
"I already know there's some generation of Plan Bs and Plan Cs and so on, so watch this space."
Ōtamataha Trust manager Alan Tate said earlier this month the transfer was "about the mana, not the money".
He said the trust would enter into a 99-year peppercorn lease agreement with the foundation.
"The plan to build a visitor centre there is totally supported by the Ōtamataha Trust."
Tauranga City councillors are expected to deliver a final decision regarding 11 Mission St on September 10.