Northland's top tourist town is sharply divided over plans to build a series of breakwaters to protect its waterfront from storms.
Supporters of the $8 million government-funded project — who point to the big swells which battered the town last week — say it's also needed to protect Paihia's newly rebuilt wharf and allow the restoration of what was once a popular beach.
Opponents, however, say the breakwaters will be an eyesore and worry they could trigger erosion in other areas or undo pest control work on a nearby island.
Divisions have been growing since the 15-year-old plan was revived last July as a Covid recovery project, and came to a head at a fiery public meeting which drew about 190 people to Paihia Memorial Hall last month.
Opponents presented a petition with 840 signatures and 3125 names collected online to councillor Kelly Stratford, who said she would table it at the Far North District Council's June meeting.
The project is managed by council-owned company Far North Holdings (FNH).
Brad Windust, of conservation group Bay Bush Action, said the revival of the mothballed sea wall plan had divided people and ''lit a fire under our little town''.
His main concern was for Motumaire, an island close to shore, where the beach was replenished with sand deposited by currents driven by the Waitangi River.
He feared the breakwaters would change the currents, eroding the island's shore as well as nearby Ti Beach.
They could also create a ''rat runway'' allowing pests to re-invade the island, where the group's volunteers had trapped 300 rats in the past 10 years.
The revised plan had gaps in the sea walls but they were small enough for rats to easily swim across, Windust said.
While the underwater reef from Nihonui Pt to the island had a gap blasted in it many years ago, that didn't justify burying the rest of it under a rock wall.
''Last time they messed with the foreshore we lost our most popular beach. Surely that's a stark reminder not to mess with mother nature.''
Visitors liked Paihia because it hadn't yet been turned into a ''concrete jungle'', he said.
Petition organiser Margaret Taituha, of Waitangi, echoed Windust's concerns.
''A lot of people think it's wrong and crazy. Brad's group has cleared the island of pests and the birds have come back. I feel for them, they've put so much work in and it could all go to waste,'' she said.
The breakwater plan has evolved since its origins in 2000, when a survey of Paihia residents found the town improvement they wanted most was the restoration of Horotutu Beach.
Located between Nihonui Pt (The Bluff) and Horotutu Park, it was Paihia's busiest beach in the 1950s and 60s but had since been lost to erosion.
After years of design and consultation the Paihia Masterplan was unveiled in 2006. It proposed restoring the beach and building a breakwater connecting Nihonui Pt with Motumaire and Kuia Rongouru islands to protect the new beach, and the rest of the waterfront, from storms and erosion.
The original plan also proposed an upgraded wharf, a promenade, a 4000sq m reclamation with tourism-related buildings, and a 160m-long floating ''wave attenuator'' with 12 boat berths. The price tag was expected to top $20m.
Consents were granted in 2010 after a long battle in the Environment Court with iwi objecting in particular to the breakwater connecting the islands to the mainland, saying it would encourage people to visit highly significant Motumaire.
In the revised, court-approved plan, the sea walls no longer touch the islands or the mainland. The height of the sea walls was also reduced.
The following year, however, FNH announced the project had been put on ice due to the global financial crisis. The consents remain valid until 2044.
In 2018 the Provincial Growth Fund granted $3.75m to upgrade Paihia wharf, which was part of the original consent; and in July last year, following a nationwide appeal by Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones for ''shovel-ready'' projects, the Covid Response and Recovery Fund granted $8m to the Paihia redevelopment.
The grant was only enough for the breakwaters so the council pledged $5.3m for beach restoration and a new waterfront promenade.
Neither grant covered the proposed reclamation immediately south of the wharf.
A community steering group was set up to gauge if there was public appetite to raise the $3m needed for the reclamation and to help plan the new waterfront recreation area at Horotutu Beach.
Group chairman Charles Parker said it was clear from last week's storm that something needed to be done to protect Paihia's waterfront.
''I also feel strongly that we can do better than the ugly rock wall that separates our town from the amazing water that is the Bay of Islands,'' he said, referring to the boulder embankment along eroded Horotutu Beach.
Fifteen community groups and organisations had been invited to take part in the group. Some had declined involvement but all were notified of meetings and sent minutes.
FNH general manager Chris Galbraith said the project aimed to protect Paihia by building breakwaters that, if not built now, could be needed in future — but then ratepayers would have to pay for it.
The town's waterfront was responsible for the economic wellbeing of many Far North families and had only recently been brought up to scratch with millions of taxpayer dollars so locals wouldn't have to foot the bill.
''It's also about enhancing the waterfront so it can better be enjoyed by those who live here and those who visit,'' he said.
Construction of the breakwaters will require the dredging of a new channel because Russell-Paihia ferries currently pass between Motumaire and Kuia Rongouru islands.
Horotutu Beach will be restored using 25,000cu m of dredgings topped with 20,000cu m of fine sand, most likely from Pākiri. Abutments will be built at each end of the beach to help prevent sand loss.
The northern breakwater (between the islands) will rise 3.6m above low water and 1.4m above high water; the heights for the western breakwater are 2.2m and 0.2m.