Russian steel magnate's mansion project prompts call for law change to protect public entry to precious areas.

An environmental campaigner is asking questions about coastal access-way after the rise of a Russian steel magnate's $40 million-plus Northland residential development, thought to be New Zealand's most expensive luxury housing project.

Gary Taylor of the Environmental Defence Society said the law needed to be changed to enshrine accessway to certain precious areas and he has concerns about access to coastal areas.

He was commenting after revelations about the scale of the residential development at Alexander Abramov's four-house Helena Bay property.

"In general terms, public access is desirable in places where this is not going to diminish the land owner's privacy.


"We have a lot of wealthy American - and in this case Russian - land owners buying land here," he said, recommending that approval for such sales be conditional on the public gaining some benefits.

The new houses would completely dominate the bay, Taylor said, which was unfortunate.

"It's not a very New Zealand scale and in an increasingly troubled world, it's going to become more of a feature," he said of big-scale housing developments by foreigners in isolated areas.

Precedents existed for public access on private land, he said, citing Peter Cooper's Mountain Landing in the Bay of Islands where special provision was made for beach accessway, and the tramping track created after rock star Shania Twain bought a high-country Central Otago property.

Chris Seel, managing director of Northland Coastal Developments and Helena Bay Holdings - in charge of the Abramov project - said the issue came down to property rights on coastal land, native bush and around lakes and rivers.

He asked why the public should be granted automatic access over private land and in particular why land owned by foreigners should have different property rights from that owned by New Zealanders.

"Most of this nicer land is in New Zealand hands and only a small percentage in foreign hands," Seel said.

"Giving public accessway would therefore involve removing property rights from many New Zealanders and a few foreigners and handing these to the general public.

"Yet the rights of privacy and control were purchased legally by the owners - and, one would assume, intentionally," he said.

"This would amount to nationalisation of private assets which in itself is not very 'New Zealand'.

"If this were indeed to occur, then the next question would be what if any compensation regime would be put in place." Once the public can go on to private land, who would be responsible for maintaining and servicing the land, Seel asked.

"Would it fall to councils as it does for reserves, or the Department of Conservation?

"Where would the extra funding come from as we struggle to maintain the nation's existing under-utilised reserves and conservation land?

"Would this additional burden not have to fall to the public?" Most wealthy foreigners came here for privacy, beauty and the environment and part of New Zealand's attraction was its anonymity and a chance to be in an environment where they could relax without intrusion or security fears, Seel said.

Helena Bay's first occupants fought and died defending their property rights from being taken by other tribes before European settlement.

"It remained private when Europeans first leased it from Maori and was still private when passed into European ownership in the 1970s," Seel said.

"The public regularly access the area ... by boat or via the coast at low tide to collect shellfish and there is no reason that this would change, it might even increase with the curiosity factor."

Formal access rights have also been granted to the local hapu to get to tapu areas and traditional kaimoana collection grounds, Seel said.

"The only way to seriously increase public access would be to allow the public to come down the private driveway, park up and have picnics on the lawn - a suggestion that I suspect any New Zealand landowner would struggle with as much as any foreign owner."

Russian developer
* Steel magnate Alexander Abramov paid $15.9 million for land.

* He is on the NBR Richlist as NZ's wealthiest man.

* Site north of Whangarei on back road to Russell.

* 215ha farm, accessed via a 1km private gravel road.