A dream golf course is the latest twist for a beach which locals say should be for the birds, not birdies. Geoff Cumming reports

Paradise is not yet lost at Te Arai beach, a stunning stretch of white sand, rolling surf, dunes and pine forest prized as the last development-free ocean beach on the east coast north of Auckland.

This week, a PR offensive promised that an international-class golf course would be built on dunes cleared of pines at the northern end of the "Mangawhai North" forest - with 45 "residential lots" discreetly hidden inland, away from beachgoers' gaze.

For conservationists fighting to keep the beach in its natural state, this certainly looms as an improvement on the 2000-home subdivision once proposed for the 616ha forest block.

But whether even this limited human intrusion will help the critically endangered fairy tern and other rare species of wildlife that breed and nest in the dunes is an issue that seems destined for the Environment Court.


Not that this was hinted at in the upbeat announcements which followed Overseas Investment Office clearance for Los Angeles financier Ric Kayne to buy the 230ha golf course site for $10 million from a joint venture involving Te Uri O Hau and property developer John Darby.

Billionaire Kayne has also taken a stake in the joint venture but many consent hurdles remain before any houses get off the ground.

The 5km stretch of sand is the continuation of a ribbon of undeveloped coastline which extends from Pakiri, near Leigh, to Mangawhai Heads, interrupted only by the Te Arai Pt headland. Reached by dirt road off the Mangawhai road, the lack of disturbance for much of the year keeps the beach and dunes as a habitat of outstanding national importance.

The OIO's land sale approval follows undertakings to replace pine forest with native plantings, protect dunes and wetland areas and set up a conservation trust to protect the endangered shorebirds.

At first blush, Kayne's plan has echoes of the sale of a headlandat Helena Bay in Northland to the Russian steel magnate Alexander Abramov - one of those deals where a sale to a wealthy foreigner might prove to be worthwhile.

A keen sailor and golfing nut who has played the world's top 100 courses, Kayne wants a panoramic course on a par with Cape Kidnappers and Kauri Cliffs, world-class links developed by Julian Robertson, another wealthy American to fall in love with New Zealand and go through the hoops to secure a piece of coastline.

Aged 65, Kayne is winding down and hopes to tee off within two years on his Tom Doak-designed course with views to Whangarei Heads, the Hen and Chicken Islands and Little Barrier. He plans to build a house near the course plus a couple for friends.

Kayne has undoubted financial nous. His company, Kayne Anderson Capital Advisors, manages more than US$12 billion in investments, mainly in the energy sector, and he won't be fretting about green fees from his "private club" course.

But it will take considerable navigational skills to steer this project to fruition. Consents are still needed for water and other aspects of the course development.

And the prospect of houses - and the people they bring - will continue to be fiercely resisted by those who advocate for the birds and skinks, and others who want Te Arai to remain a wilderness, enjoyed by surfers and other day-trippers.

A stray 3-wood from the golf course is a wildlife reserve administered by the Department of Conservation and volunteers. About 16 threatened or endangered species call the beach home. They include the northern NZ dotterel, caspian and white-fronted tern, grey duck, shore skink and katipo spider, and rare plants including rawiri. None is more vulnerable than the NZ fairy tern, of which around 40 birds remain, including fewer than 12 breeding pairs (though this is a recovery of sorts).

The beach is one of only four remaining spots where the fairy tern roosts (the others are nearby Pakiri, Waipu and an area on the Kaipara Harbour). Its nesting areas - in and around the wildlife reserve and near the Te Arai Stream mouth - are vulnerable to ocean storms, predators and human activities, including vehicles, horse-riding and pets.

"One dog could wipe out the entire population here," says Chris Wild, spokeswoman for the Te Arai Beach Preservation Society.

"Human disturbance and human-related pests have caused that destruction. We are down to the last, which is why we are not going to stop fighting. We are the line in the sand."

Standing with them are wildlife care groups including the NZ Fairy Tern Charitable Trust, claiming support from as far away as London, while a surfers' website this week called on boardies to "physically protest outside the development site".

The trouble in paradise is the barely economic pine forest which runs the length of the beach. The land was sold by the Crown in 2000 as part of a Treaty settlement with Te Uri O Hau, a Ngati Whatua hapu. The $5.5 million purchase was what's known as commercial redress - to be used for economic gain to benefit the hapu. It depends who you talk to whether the Crown thought this meant simply accepting the rent on the pines or if a more profitable use was envisaged.

Te Uri O Hau then formed a joint venture with Darby, a Queenstown-based resort and golf course developer, and later bought the trees off leaseholder Carter Holt Harvey. But various attempts to subdivide the block for housing have run foul of DoC, the old Auckland Regional Council, the Rodney District Council and conservationists. Making the best out of the settlement has been a minefield ever since.

The hapu says it was unaware of the beach's importance as a wildlife habitat and was taken aback by DoC and council opposition to development. It says further pine planting in the windswept dunes is uneconomic.

Locals say the iwi was poorly advised. Early plans for a Pakeha-style 2000-lot subdivision ran into a wall of opposition from conservationists, surfers, council planners and beachgoers. Subsequent proposals - for 1400, then 850, then 180 homes - were rebuffed with equal vigour.

Darby's golf course credentials include Clearwater, Millbrook and Jack's Point in the South Island but the idea of a course at Te Arai appears to have emerged as a compromise.

At one point, the joint venture offered to sell the whole block as public parkland to DoC and the old Auckland Regional Council but the financially strapped public agencies could not meet the asking price.

There were accusations of backroom deals when the old Rodney District Council changed its district plan to allow the developers to apply for houses in return for successful bush restoration - a ratio of one house per 6ha of natives planted.

An Environment Court ruling in 2010 upheld Rodney's plan and creates the potential for 44 houses on what had become three development sites, if the native plantings survive in the harsh coastal environment.

More recently, in a bid to make the housing scheme more palatable, the joint venture proposed giving the southern end of the block to the Auckland Council, enabling it to considerably extend a public park at the beach access point.

But that proposal is on hold after 2000 submitters opposed a private plan change sought by the developers.

Approval for Kayne to buy in comes as a relief for the hapu. Te Uri O Hau Settlement Trust services manager Deborah Harding says the partnership hopes to work with local groups to enhance habitats through replanting and predator control. Kayne has pledged initial funding of $100,000 for a conservation trust, and plans an annual tournament to raise cash for seabird protection.

Harding says the goal remains for the joint venture to help the hapu to improve economically, such as through farmland purchases within its rohe (traditional area).

Trustee Mikaera Miru says the hapu felt betrayed by the Crown when DoC and planning authorities opposed its development plans after the Treaty deal.

"We should be entitled to determine what application we use on our land - everybody else makes that decision."

But opponents say no amount of housing is acceptable.

"We know this is only the thin end of the wedge," says the preservation society's Chris Wild.

"Once you get any number of houses in and values are destroyed you will end up with 2000 people."

Experience elsewhere shows even rules banning pets from houses are not enforceable, she says.

"What we are talking about is a species extinction versus 46 people getting to live by the coast. It's a no- brainer for most people.

"If Te Uri O Hau still have a grievance about financial outcomes then let's address that in another way."

The objectors hope the forthcoming Auckland unitary plan will recognise the beach as inappropriate for subdivision and they still hope for a public buy-back - DoC or the Auckland Council or both together.

"Because it's remote and rugged, people just spend a short time here and appreciate the environment and go away," says Wild. "That's why we've still got the katipo and the shore skink and all these other species that are lost to the rest of the region.

"Let's talk about it in a way that people can contribute - the iwi can be compensated and it doesn't mean the environment has to pay a price."