A dairy farm northwest of Whangārei could be the city's new airport after civic leaders paid $7 million to buy it, along with surrounding properties.
Mayor Sheryl Mai said last night that the land purchased by Whangārei District Council was one of a handful of options for the city's possible future airport.
The current airport at Onerahi was expected to be "no longer fit for purpose" by 2028 because of "changes in airplane and airline operator requirements". It is believed to have the shortest landing strip of any regional airport in the country.
That was according to the council's long-term plan, published in 2018, which earmarked $5.6m to explore alternative airport options across the district.
Mai said she wasn't "really convinced" the Onerahi airport would be phased out, with the use of alternative fuels and changes in technology possibly rendering the runway length less of an issue.
"The future of aviation is still unknown."
She said there had been significant changes in the two years since the long-term plan had been published, particularly this pandemic year of Covid-19. "The world has changed."
However, the likely possibility of needing to find a new site for the airport meant the council had to "future-proof" the city.
"It's a really wise thing we are doing to ensure we have options in the future if we have to move the airport from Onerahi."
The land bought by the council was in Ruatangata on a stretch of land on Pipiwai Rd, bracketed by Kokopu Rd and Three Mile Bush Rd. While the deal had been agreed, it was not going to be settled until June.
Mai would not confirm the purchase price, saying it was "in the millions". The Advocate has learned the price was more than $7m, with more cash paid for adjoining properties and farm buildings.
She said the council had also identified other possible sites for the airport - one to the north of Whangārei and two sites to the south of the city.
It meant there was no plan to start building a new airport, with the land secured against future possibilities. The council would continue to run it as a dairy farm, she said.
Mai said there was still uncertainty over Air New Zealand's need for regional airports and its approach to the future was unclear until it had distance from the tumult of the pandemic.
She had taken the opportunity to quiz Air NZ chairwoman Dame Therese Walsh during her recent visit to Whangārei on a speaking engagement. Discussions had revolved around biofuels and electric aircraft, with Whangārei the perfect distance as a hub from Auckland.
Council infrastructure group manager Simon Weston said staff learned in October the farm was for sale. The difficulty in buying large chunks of land led to an appeal to the council to approach the owner with an offer based on recent sales.
"Since then, we have also been approaching landowners surrounding this farm's boundaries with a view to obtaining some further land."
Weston said the inability to extend the runway at Onerahi raised risks over the airport's ability to operate long-term.
The council had spent six years scoping out sites for a new airport.About 30 potential sites had been identified over the past four years, which had been further reduced to the current handful of options.
"Infrastructure of this significance takes a long time to plan."
Weston said there would be community consultation and involvement for any site that was chosen, with detailed investigations into its suitability and construction costs.
Whangārei MP Emily Henderson said she was looking forward to discussing the purchase with the mayor.
"Whangārei is growing very rapidly, which puts strain on infrastructure. Infrastructure investment is very important," she said.