Visitors hoping to heli-ride into a private enclave within the Abel Tasman National Park will be out of luck from April, following a controversial court decision.
The Environment Court's interim decision comes after a long-running legal fight triggered by a complaint about a noisy aeroplane.
In a move that has baffled many, fixed-wing aircraft will still be allowed to use the privately-owned airstrip but helicopters are grounded, at least until there's a resource consent in place.
There are about 200 chopper trips to the airstrip each year, most of which happen in summer and are for transporting tourists and visitors to the high-end Awaroa Lodge on private land within the national park.
The airstrip was established in the 1960s on private farmland to support farming operations. It is now run by a company made up of property owners in Awaroa, and has become an increasingly busy zone for aviation-based transport and tourism.
The legal action was triggered by a complaint in 2018 about noise from aircraft using a new airstrip that had been established on land adjacent to the existing airstrip.
Some locals say the recently released decision fails to address the core noise problem for property owners in Awaroa, near the northern head of the national park.
Awaroa property owner Darryl Wilson, who was not part of the legal action, said the irony of the court's decision was that it applied only to helicopters, when it was a complaint against one small aeroplane in particular which triggered the process.
Wilson said the matter might never have gone this far if the owners of the noisy aircraft had got a new propeller.
"If this one plane had been as quiet as many others coming and going it would not be quite as polarising."
The Tasman District Council looked into use of both, and while it understood that existing use rights applied to the original airstrip, it felt they no longer met current environmental protection standards.
The council sought enforcement orders against a list of respondents, including the company Awaroa Aerodrome Limited, which operated the airstrip for which landing and overnight fees are charged to help maintain the airstrip.
The majority of respondents were critical of the council's efforts, and the court's decision, having argued they had existing use rights.
They said in a statement: "It is important that the court dismissed every aspect of the council's case as being plain wrong or unsubstantiated and found we'd been right in what we'd been telling the council.
"The result on helicopters came out of the blue – it was not even part of anyone's original concerns but we can't blame the court - we don't think it could work out what the council was trying to achieve either."
The court said it was not convinced from the evidence provided that helicopters could continue to use the airstrip, without the measures and controls provided by a resource consent. The same could not be said for other aircraft types using the airstrip.
In summary, it said that use of the airstrip was permitted under earlier council rules and regulations, but it lost that status once they were supplanted by updated environmental management tools, including the Tasman Resource Management Plan.
Judge Brian Dwyer and Environment Commissioner David Bunting said in the decision that since the late 1990s or early 2000s there has been a significant change in use of the airstrip, namely a regular and increasing volume of helicopter traffic.
The head of one commercial helicopter operation, with a long history of aviation tourism in Awaroa, said the decision came out-of-the-blue.
Helicopters Nelson chief executive, Pete Darling said a letter from the council a few weeks ago was the first he knew about what was happening.
He said the decision stood to impact a decent portion of the company's business.
Darling said it was frustrating to be directly affected by a decision when he was effectively a third party in the matter, and when helicopter operations in the area must follow stringent local aviation procedures.
"We seem to be taking the brunt of this, and it makes no sense. It's really disappointing that a decision has been made without our input."
Darling says it was also disappointing that efforts by the affected parties to talk with the council have so far gone unheeded.
"We'd like to know what they're trying to achieve."
The council said at the heart of the matter was conflict around the rights of existing residents and those wanting to run businesses on land adjoining a national park.
The council's environment group manager, Dennis Bush-King, said the interim decision established a benchmark for existing use rights, but it also provided room for further discussion. He said the letter it was required to send out had given rise to further questions, including from some helicopter operators.
"There was a suggestion the council didn't accept existing use rights - we know there's been an airfield at Awaroa for many years, but what we were saying was that the nature of the use had exceeded the historical use rights.
"The court has now given us an indication as to what it believes is acceptable and therefore the residents need to accept that is the threshold the airfield can work to."
Wellington architect Zac Athfield was the sole director and shareholder of Awaroa Aerodrome Ltd, and a director of the New Zealand Settlement Co Ltd which owned property adjoining the airstrip.
He said he and other respondents were unsure as to whether the court's decision was a fair and correct one, and they aimed to seek further clarity from the council.
"So far we understand the court has asked the council to consult with relevant owners in order to understand and frame an enforcement order that is workable in relation to helicopters, given they have not been proven to have existing use rights.
"I think the court was seeking that any use that could not prove existing use, or that was not lawful by other means, should either obtain resource consent or cease use."
He said that he and others doubted that what amounted to a banning of helicopters would be a satisfactory outcome for Awaroa residents or businesses that serve the community.
Darryl Wilson said the nub of the issue has, and always will be aviation. He said it had caused tension in the small community of residents and holiday homeowners.
"It's not a rift as such - people aren't picketing the airstrip but it would have been nice if there'd been an acknowledgement of the impact from the noise and attempts made to mitigate.
"I've always felt that aviation tourism is great for the two or three people on the 'plane but not so good for the 5000 below it."
"I think everyone's just trying to get to a reasonable position where the pre-existing use is allowed to continue and life can go on."
Athfield said the respondents faced legal bills well in excess of $100,000 which was likely to be shared proportionately among landowners who "all enjoy the benefit of varying types of landing rights consented by the council over various years from 1973 to 2008".
A decision on court costs was reserved.