A final fundraising push is underway to save an iconic Northland beach from development and create a multi-day walking track along a spectacular stretch of the east coast.
Elliot Bay, between Rawhiti and Oakura, is privately owned but the Elliot family have allowed public access across their land since the 1930s. The beach is prized by surfers and families who have camped there every summer for generations.
However, with the 700ha Elliot Farm on the market, it risks being carved up for luxury holiday homes, an outcome which could see the public locked out.
Now a specially-formed trust is working hard to raise the last $1.5 million it needs to buy the farm.
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As well as securing public beach access in perpetuity the trust wants to develop a series of walks including a multi-day track connecting Cape Brett with Russell State Forest, which could create employment in isolated communities and open up walking access to a swathe of Northland's scenic east coast.
The farm has been on the market since 2015 with Geoff Ricketts, chair of the Ipipiri Nature Conservancy Trust, in talks with owners John and Christine Elliot since late 2018.
''When I saw it was for sale I thought it would be a tragedy if was broken up,'' he said.
Ricketts has secured a substantial sum from the Next Foundation with private donations boosting the amount pledged so far to around $5m.
The donations had come from a mix of locals and people such as himself ''who've fallen in love with the north''.
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He was now awaiting the outcome of a funding application to Foundation North. If that was successful the trust would still need to raise up to another $1.5m to hit its $9.3m target by the end of March.
Elliot Farm facts
• 2 unspoiled surf beaches
• 200ha farmland, 500ha bush
• farmed by the Elliot family since the 1930s
• a campground since 1948
• forms a link between Cape Brett and Russell Forest
• up to $1.5m more needed to secure public access
Ricketts said the family had turned down higher offers because they wanted to see the land preserved. The trust had offered to pay roughly the land's government valuation because it would struggle to elicit public donations if the price was significantly higher.
If the plan is successful the trust would own the land in perpetuity with the key goals of protecting the environment and creating a hike to Great Walk standards.
The Elliot family had riparian rights but had always allowed access to the beach on the condition people didn't bring dogs or alcohol and kept their cars off the beach. Public access, including the campground, would be maintained.
The property consisted of about 200ha of farmland and 500ha of bush.
Buying the farm would allow the development of a multi-day walk because it formed a link between Cape Brett (a mix of conservation land and Māori land owned by the 3B2 Trust) and the DoC-administered, 8500ha Russell Forest.
The walk could start in the Bay of Islands, traverse Cape Brett and Whangamumu Bay, follow the coast through Elliot Farm, and cross Russell Forest to eventually emerge at Waikare or at Papakauri, next to the Whangaruru Harbour.
The trust would also develop a series of shorter, educational walks, Ricketts said.
Fellow trustee Robert Willoughby (Ngāti Kuta) said the walkway would join up isolated settlements and create employment opportunities in track building, pest control, hut servicing, guiding and food and accommodation.
It could also serve as a model of collaboration between Māori and private landowners and agencies such as DoC.
Willoughby said the proposed route was known for its scenic beauty and biodiversity, but it was also rich in Māori heritage.
''So I see it as an education thing,'' he said.
Neither of the Elliots' children are farmers so they have decided to retain a small piece of land and sell the rest.
John Elliot's father leased the farm in the 1930s, set up the campground in 1948 and bought the land in the 1950s.
John Elliot, 80, said he wanted to see the land retained for the public with camping and a mix of farming and conservation.
Christine Elliot said they fully supported the walkway proposal.
''We want to leave the land with somebody who is going to preserve and conserve. We want to leave it in the hands of a good steward,'' she said.
The other trustees of the Ipipiri Nature Conservancy Trust are former DoC Northland conservator Chris Jenkins and former Antarctica NZ chairman Sir Christopher Mace.
The Next Foundation, which is putting up the biggest share of funding, is a New Zealand philanthropic foundation launched in March 2014. It has a mandate to invest $100m over 10 years in environmental and educational projects benefiting New Zealanders.
The Elliots previously offered the land to DoC for $15m — in line with the price paid for a coastal property at Helena Bay by a Russian oligarch — but the department said at the time it didn't meet its conservation threshold and it already had a number of campgrounds in the area.
In 2016 a public Givealittle campaign raised just over $2.2m to buy Awaroa Bay at the top of the South Island and save it from development. The bay is now part of Abel Tasman National Park.
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