Descendants of former iwi owners of Rotorua's Airport land are concerned about proposed developments at the airport. Kelly Makiha reports.
Descendants of former iwi owners of Rotorua's Airport land are going head-to-head with the airport company over its proposed developments, claiming they could breach the Treaty of Waitangi.
The Rotorua Airport, which is owned by the Rotorua Lakes Council, is planning to develop some of its disused land and has applied for $22 million from the Government's "shovel ready" fund to help finance it.
The airport says it is not selling the land or doing anything it isn't entitled to do but former Māori landowners aren't so sure.
Rotorua woman Renee Kiriona has rallied descendants of the land who had their first "zui" last weekend and they plan to meet online again today to discuss action.
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She said of the 111 original Māori landowners, 70 were represented at the first zui.
Kiriona said the land was taken from iwi in the 1960s under the Public Works Act for an aerodrome.
She believed the planned developments were "re-purposing" the land outside the realms of an aerodrome.
The airport's plans include a hangar that could be used for a variety of aviation purposes as well as light industry activities, such as storage or a small-scale aviation school.
It also sought funding for an industrial and business park that would help the airport "leverage value" from its unused land and diversify its revenue, as well as opening up industrial land for logistics, manufacturing and other commercial and industrial uses.
The airport company estimates the developments could attract up to 500 jobs.
Kiriona said creating service stations and takeaways like McDonald's and KFC, seen around other international airports, was not the intention of that land.
"We are saying if you're not going to use it for an aerodrome, then you need to give it back to us. However, we are not unrealistic or unfair, therefore it would be good for us to talk, to see if we can come to an agreement that is good for the community."
Kiriona said they weren't out to stifle Rotorua's growth.
"We aren't a bunch of unfair or unrealistic Māori. We are mindful we need businesses and jobs. We come to the table with that type of thinking too. We're not saying developments shouldn't happen, we're saying let's talk."
She said the Crown had already apologised to the iwi and given redress in 2008 after their Treaty of Waitangi settlement, which included the airport land.
"If they don't include us in this, we believe they will breach the treaty again."
She said the airport had a relationship with the local iwi, Ngāti Uenukukōpako, but they weren't representatives of descendants of the airport landowners.
"Not everyone from Ngāti Uenukukōpako was a descendant of that land. They [the airport company] are talking to the wrong crowd."
Kiriona said the descendants weren't looking for a court argument.
"We are sick of court, we want to have an agreement instead. We are just asking for a meeting."
She said the message she got from the zui was descendants either wanted to buy back the land or be part of the development, such as ensuring iwi were part of the employment options or lease processes.
Descendant Cyrus Hingston was part of the zui as his grandmother was a landowner. He was calling for better consultation.
"They haven't been clear what they are doing. If there's talk of selling or leasing the land, it should be offered back to landowners. We just want to sit down with them and have a good and proper look at their plans."
Hingston said the airport had talked with tribal descendants but not former landowners.
Rotorua Airport chief executive Mark Gibb said the airport company was not doing anything illegal, outside its zoning or against the original acquisition.
"We are not repurposing the land, we are not selling it, we are not subdividing it.
"We are trying to do the right thing and we are trying to create a viable, economic and sustainable airport for Rotorua."
He said rental car businesses, service stations, flight schools and food outlets were all part of an airport's operation.
"Every single airport has this. There is nothing that makes this illegal. We want to do everything right and we will do everything right."
Gibb said the uses and businesses targeted for the business park would complement the airport activities and were not anticipated to affect the viability of the central city.
Gibb said the airport played a pivotal role in Rotorua's community and economy and as the city recovered from the impact of Covid-19, the airport would be instrumental in helping the city move forward.
He said the plans had been worked on for the past two and a half years.
"We are continuing to engage with Ngāti Uenukukōpako as we refine the airport's master plan. This includes developing a Memorandum of Understanding on how we work together and collaborate.
Ngāti Uenukukōpako hapū representative Nireaha Pirika said he and kaumātua had been building a relationship on behalf of the hapū and tangata whenua with the airport management.
"I have spoken with Mark Gibb about these issues and he confirmed what I had suspected that no land will be sold and that there is no consent application being sought by the airport management for a change of land use and so I have no reason to doubt Mark's reply."
However, Pirika said he understood Kiriona's "hardline stance".
"Our people were severed from their whenua and moved to Ford Rd. Over time our people have become disconnected from their marae and hapū. It is hard to explain the hurt that still exists today as though it was yesterday.
"I could go on about the injustice that occurred decades ago but we are all trying to make something good out of something that was wrong. It doesn't mean that the hapū have given up the fight to have the land returned."
The Rotorua Daily Post asked the Rotorua Lakes Council about the descendants' concerns but a spokesperson replied: "This is a matter for the airport company but our organisation is aware of concerns expressed by Ms Kiriona and understands the airport CE has spoken with her."
What is the airport's relationship with the council?
• Rotorua Airport is known as a council-controlled organisation but operates independently of the council.
• It manages its own operations and has its own decision-making board. The council is the shareholder.
• Every year the council and the council-controlled organisation agree on a Statement of Intent, which outlines what it will do in that coming year. That is the case for all council-controlled organisations in Rotorua, including Rotorua Economic Development and InfraCore.
• The council-controlled organisation report quarterly and publicly to elected members via the council's Operations and Monitoring Committee and the airport has been reporting on its master plan, which the proposed developments are part of.