"Now is the time to move to New Zealand," blogs the Washington Post, quoting Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"I might consider finding a nice little ranch there," pipes up Hollywood star Billy Crystal, of When Harry met Sally fame.

Since "Donald bet Hillary" the interest in li'l old NZ as a Trump escape portal has spiked.

Immigration officials here say they've received more than 13,000 registrations of interest from the US since Trump's shock election success - more than 17 times the normal amount.

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These liberal asylum seekers will join wealthier compatriots who have already identified our country as a perfect bolthole.

A report from New World Wealth named New Zealand as the sixth-most-popular destination in the world for millionaire migrants. We welcomed 2000 of them in 2015.

Isolation, as Bloomberg News put it, "has long been NZ's Achilles heel. That remoteness is turning into an advantage."

But how advantageous will it be for Kiwis who live in the secluded spots where wealthy emigres wish to build their hideouts? Ranches with airfields, mountain redoubts, islands and remote beaches. And what will it mean for those sensitive landscapes?

The predicted influx could put a global spin on the old developers versus conservationists debate. Will the environmental values of New Zealanders be shared by the newcomers keen to secure their plot in paradise?

Pacific waves sweep in over honey-coloured sand. Surfers dotted in the break are the only evidence of human habitation. There's not a single home or bach as far as the eye can see.

Te Arai beach, slotted in between Pakiri and Mangawhai, is a comfortable hour and half drive north of Auckland - or a 15-minute helicopter flight.

An elite coastal housing development under way here could provide some answers about the predicted US invasion.

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The Te Arai North Limited (TANL) development comprises 46 sites on 1300ha. It boasts 11km of Pacific Ocean frontage and a brand new golf course with a world-class reputation. Half the plots have already been bought by Americans.

Presumably they responded to this sort of marketing: "The east coast of New Zealand's North Island looks like a long-lost version of the Southern California coast: largely unpopulated, framed by mountains, and fringed with wild vegetation ... a handful of parcels that are being developed in an appropriately respectful fashion."

John Darby, the designer behind golf resorts like Millbrook in Queenstown and Clearwater is the New Zealand face of the US-backed project. According to his website: "Good planning and design will tread lightly, carefully integrating into the land with no disturbance to its intrinsic values."

To get the project off the ground, Darby struck a unique deal with local Maori. The iwi provided the land and cultural guidance. Darby and his American partners are doing the marketing and developing.

Originally the plan was for 1400 houses. TANL got knocked back to 46 in the planning process and embraced considerable environmental mitigation. The developers are removing pine trees and replacing them with 1.3 million native plantings. They have gifted 196ha for a public reserve, engaged in predator elimination, banned pets and even put in covenants about outside lighting to protect the habitat of the birdlife.

Darby brought in world-renowned golf-course designer Tom Doak - known for his green approach - to conjure up an 18-hole green oasis in the middle of Te Arai's desolate sand dunes.

Alongside New Zealand designer John Darby and local iwi Te Uri o Hau sits keen golfer, US billionaire Ric Kayne. He is a director of one of the companies that owns TANL.

In his press release about the Te Arai development, Kayne says: "We intend to treat it with great respect, and regard it as a privilege to have this opportunity to work with Te Uri o Hau and the local community."

However, there is unease in the community over elements of the development and whether environmental concerns are being overridden by economic decisions.

"This whole treading lightly stuff is garbage," says Aaron McConchie from community group Save Te Arai.

"They speak about sustaining the environment and ecological responsibility. Well, it's hard to prove that argument when you are damaging the landscape."

Locals have shown the Herald on Sunday what the diggers and bulldozers have been up to since they gained council permission. Some are unhappy about the scale of the excavation - one resident attacked it as a "third-world mining operation".
The developers dismiss the criticisms as "wild assertions".

"If they were true, TANL would be getting hauled over the coals with all sorts of enforcement actions," a spokesman says.

For each complaint, the developers are forced to go to great lengths to prove they are doing everything by the book.

Take, for example, the quicksand that was exposed. A few weeks ago Mangawhai resident Melanie Scott was riding her horse down a public easement to the beach. The path took her past the edge of the Te Arai development.

She came across what she describes as an "open moonscape" and she and her horse Yo-yo started to sink.

Te Arai beach's tree-dotted glorious desolation. Photo / Greg Bowker
Te Arai beach's tree-dotted glorious desolation. Photo / Greg Bowker

"We realised it was quicksand. I was thinking, 'My God, the horse, what am I going to do?' He was sinking up to his withers."

Scott rolled off the horse and used dune grass to haul herself to safety. Yo-yo also managed to free himself.

The developer says the quicksand was exposed after the consented removal of some pine trees freed up the natural water flow. The work is ongoing and "once completed the entire coastal reserve, including dunes and wetlands, will be revegetated to a state not seen over Te Arai North's 50 years as a commercial pine forest".

Another example: last month the developers removed a Maori midden from the dunes - one of three marked in the council plan as sites needing protection.

As soon as it was discovered, work stopped and the developer consulted its Archaeological Site Management plan. It consulted iwi and took advice from one of the kaumatua.

"The midden material was blessed in situ, relocated and buried appropriately under guidance of the kaumatua and our archaeologist," TANL says in a statement.

And a third example. McConchie says developers have turned a small weir into a "dam" to get water for their golf course.

"It's unbelievable," says McConchie. "They're creating a modern-day moat. You've got the rich on one side and the public land on the other."

This is an allegation under investigation by Auckland Council, which says in a statement that compliance staff are looking into it.

"The developer has been advised to cease all work until such time as the council can consider the effects on the environment through a resource consent process."
Again, the developers have been forced to defend their actions.

In a statement, they say they have consent to take water and that the so-called dam was the result of emergency works to repair damage after flooding.

"This area and equipment is critical to ensure we are able to manage the water to meet volunteered minimum flows provided for by the draft National Environmental Standard and also for the benefit of the downstream areas of Te Arai stream which are habitat for a range of wildlife," they say.

Each isolated concern can be seen as minor but, for some locals, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

As foundations set on Te Arai's first multi-million dollar house a band of disgruntled locals find the talk of environmental guardianship is sticking in their craw.

Billionaire Kayne is tied up financially with a company involved in the United States' worst ecological disaster.

The company he chairs, Kayne Anderson, bought a stake in Anadarko, the oil exploration company that part-owned, with BP, Deeper Horizon. The Financial Times put his firm's institutional shareholding in June at 9.48 per cent.

Neither Kayne nor Darby were free to talk to the Herald on Sunday but Darby's office provided a statement, saying he was "unsure of how Richard Kayne's investment funds' holding in the US have any bearing on anything at Te Arai".

It is a fair response - yet the link creates more unease in the community.

And then there's the deal between TANL and local Maori.

The Te Uri o Hau settlement trust is the corporate arm set up to manage its compensation from the Crown. It received $15 million in 2002.

The trust spent $5.32m of that settlement buying Te Arai.

Taupae Connolly, from Te Uri o Hau, has become a dissident in his own tribe.
He claims Darby and the trustees hatched a plan before the crown settlement and already had in mind a private housing development for the deserted beach.

"It was supposed to be for the betterment of our people," says Connelly. "I didn't think it was a very good deal. Turns out it was a done deal."

Connelly shares the environmental concerns of others in the community, but also attacks the partnership between developer and iwi.

He says there were promises of $350m in returns over 10 years. He says the 7000 beneficiaries haven't seen a cent from the project.

Deborah Harding, acting CEO of the Trust, refused to comment on whether there was a deal done beforehand.

"At the end of the day a commercial development occurred with the settlement trust and Darby Partners," she says. "Is that a bad thing?"

She says beneficiaries have seen money through marae scholarships and education grants but not individually - and says that's not unusual.

Harding claims a lot of Connelly's arguments don't "have a strong foundation".
Meanwhile, Connelly is circulating a petition asking the trustees to resign.

"That midden was a permanent reminder that our tipuna, our ancestors, once walked there," he says. "It's sad because we let these things happen."

"The whole process has got to the point where we can't salvage anything from it apart from limit the damage."

A helicopter thumps overhead. Aaron MCConchie and other members of the Save Te Arai group flinch like Vietnam vets.

"People with means come with a different expectation of what they can get, what they can do. If it aligns with the values of the community, great. Fantastic."

But what are those values?

"It's growing very rapidly here, but it's still a small town at heart. We look after each other, look after the community, respect each other."

Looking down the beach, McConchie points out South Te Arai, in the shimmering distance. He's worried history is going to repeat.

Details emerged from the Auckland Unitary Plan that the iwi down there, Ngati Manuhiri, were working with an unnamed developer on a coastal housing development.
It has since emerged that John Darby is the developer.

Darby's PR statement says the southern project is "no secret" and the proposed land use, limited development set back in the forest, is far better than the alternatives.

"This is a model for how coastal areas can be protected while allowing iwi landowners to carefully use and manage assets," read a press release announcing the deal in April.
"There is 15km of beach with unspoilt sand and surf that lures tens of thousands of Aucklanders into a Highway 1 traffic jam every summer."

Under the deal at Te Arai access to the beach is guaranteed and protected.

But McConchie and Connelly remain perturbed.

"These are multi-million dollar mansions in an exclusive environment to service a private golf course for the elite who pay six-figure sums just to be a member. Rich or poor, Mangawhai can be for everyone."