Ngāti Whakaue members say the consent application process for nine accommodation buildings in Rotorua has "effectively silenced" them.

But Rotorua Lakes Council staff say under the district plan rules, they notified surrounding landowners, and three parties based on the cultural values of the site - Te Koutu marae, Te Komiti Nui o Ngāti Whakaue and the Te Arawa Lakes Trust.

The hearing over River and Stone Holding's consent application to build nine buildings on 0.5ha at 54 Whittaker Rd, Koutu, took place at the Rotorua Lakes Council on Wednesday before independent commissioner Bill Wasley.

Design of the proposed accommodation development. Image / Supplied
Design of the proposed accommodation development. Image / Supplied

Five of the proposed buildings would be single-storey and the other four would be two-storey.

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There would be one manager's unit on top of the 29 for visitors.

Karla Kereopa spoke at the hearing on behalf of her whānau member and resident Graeme Gillies after he suffered a heart attack on Saturday.

In her opinion, it "was in part brought on by this process and the stress of it".

Kereopa called her sister Lani, and Te Komiti Nui o Ngāti Whakaue chair Kingi Biddle as witnesses.

Lani Kereopa with Te Taupua Gillies, who lives next door to the site of the proposed development. Photo / Ben Fraser
Lani Kereopa with Te Taupua Gillies, who lives next door to the site of the proposed development. Photo / Ben Fraser

They also opposed the application.

Lani Kereopa said both the council and its planners had "failed to recognise Ngāti Whakaue as tangata whenua".

"Both have failed to take into account our values and aspirations for our traditional lands and communities. The planner deemed Ngāti Whakaue and our families who live along Whittaker Rd (who have lived there for generations) as unaffected parties. That decision is based on Pākehā world view."

She said despite the marae, trust and committee being notified, "Ngāti Whakaue cannot be represented by any one entity or organisation or grouping of these either".

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"We have a Te Arawa partnership with council ... We should have been able to expect better than this from council and the planners that they're working with."

Lani Kereopa said the council needed to see the context "of a vulnerable community who have not had the knowledge of systems, or the resources in the past to be able to fight these types of developments".

Site of the proposed accommodation development on Whittaker Rd. Photo / File
Site of the proposed accommodation development on Whittaker Rd. Photo / File

Karla Kereopa said the application for consent should have been stopped by the council before the hearing "but the council appears to be bending over backward to assist it to go ahead".

She said residential homes were preferable, "as opposed to developments of a commercial nature, where people come and go and have no connection or responsibility to the area".

"The neighbourhood should not have to put up with a suck it and see it approach."

On behalf of Gillies, she called for a cultural impact assessment to be carried out, including archaeological and historical aspects, the neighbouring Māori land blocks, Census data, and face to face interviews with tangata whenua.

Biddle said the whānau on Whittaker Rd were not just residents.

"They are protectors of the wairua of that place... it's not a road, it's not a pathway, it's a papakainga."

Dennis Paul, Te Koutu trustee said the marae had been willing to host discussions between River and Stone's team.

When Wasley asked if that meeting should happen before or after he issued a decision, Paul replied: "With all respect, it should have been a long time ago".

Dennis Paul, Te Koutu trustee and marae spokesman, refers to his notes at the hearing. Photo / File
Dennis Paul, Te Koutu trustee and marae spokesman, refers to his notes at the hearing. Photo / File

The Te Arawa Lakes Trust raised concerns about potential effects of the development on Lake Rotorua and sought a full site investigation to determine how excavation for the development could contaminate the lake, and an assessment by Dr Ian Kusabs on the potential effects on the taonga species, kōura.

Trust representative Deliah Balle said there was a clear lack of understanding of the cultural significance of the site from the River and Stone Holdings team.

"The Te Arawa Lakes Trust is also disappointed that Rotorua Lakes Council, being familiar with the mana whenua groups, chose not to facilitate or advise the applicant of who they should engage with early on in the process."

Rotorua Lakes Council planner Todd Whittaker, who prepared the planning report, said the limited notification process was not the right one to follow, based on the obvious dissatisfaction.

"I do want to express Commissioner, there was definitely no intention to silence the voice of Ngāti Whakaue."

He felt there needed to be further consultation in the application process.

"I have not reached a view that the application should be declined based on the cultural values, equally, I have not reached a view that the cultural values have been adequately defined."

He suggested the consent could be granted, if one of the conditions required a cultural impact assessment be completed in a certain timeframe.

Wasley responded "Doesn't that run the risk that horse has bolted?"

River and Stone's consultant planner Dave Parkinson said after meeting with Te Komiti Nui o Ngāti Whakaue on the site in March, he asked them to provide an indication of how long a cultural impact assessment would take.

"Unfortunately we didn't receive that proposal for some time."

He said when the indication arrived, it was unlikely it would be complete by the hearing date.

"At that point, we considered that we had delayed the hearing long enough... In the end, communication broke down."

Gang (Gavin) Shi director and shareholder of River and Stone Holdings Ltd. Photo / File
Gang (Gavin) Shi director and shareholder of River and Stone Holdings Ltd. Photo / File

However, John Newton, from the Te Komiti Nui o Ngāti Whakaue, said it had taken time to ensure the assessment would be robust.

River and Stone's legal counsel Mike Doesburg told Wasley he had three options upon adjourning the hearing.

These were to either commission a report for extra information, or a direction for the parties to engage further, or he could decline the consent application on the basis there was insufficient information.

Doesburg said whatever the outcome, the site would not be vacant forever.

"Mr Shi owns the site, he wants to become part of this community, and he wants to do that with a development that he has carefully crafted."

Wasley's decision on the consent is expected in the coming weeks.