A Wanganui District councillor says it would be irresponsible if the council did not press ahead with the sale of part of the Montgomery Reserve to help ease council debt.

Councillor Rob Vinsen, chairman of the council's audit, risk and finance committee, said the sale of the contentious reserve on the corner of State Highway 3 and Montgomery Rd on its own will not make "much of a dent" in the council's $84 million debt, but combined with other asset sales it was a "responsible" decision.

Mr Vinsen's comments follow news that opponents of the plans to create five residential sections on the seaward side of the reserve are going to petition the council to rescind its decision.

But he said few would disagree that high debt levels is a serious issue for the council.


"And due to the unexpected $24 million upgrade for the wastewater treatment plant, the debt will still keep rising for the next two years," he said.

He said most of the candidates in the October local body election expressed concern about debt, and most of the successful candidates committed to reduce it over time.

"It is being addressed in a number of ways. A reduction in operating expenditure is one, and the sale of surplus assets another."

Mr Vinsen said 32 properties worth an estimated $6.2 million have been identified and placed on a list for sale, with the St John's Hill reserve the most valuable and marketable of them.

"Sure, in isolation the proceeds from this one sale won't make much of a dent in the overall debt but, in combination with other assets sold like Energy Direct [$16 million] and other properties, reducing debt is a path that a responsible council must commit to."

He believed a reasonable debt level would be about $50 million.

But he said the journey to selling Montgomery Reserve was an "embarrassing reminder of poor governance" in the light of that growing debt.

The land in question was taken in 1938 by the Public Works Department for the roading. SH3 was realigned, taking the northernmost corner of the land and leaving the rest as open reserve space.

In 1969, the National Roads Board said it no longer required the balance of the land and wanted to vest it back to the local authority.

The problem was that involved two councils - Wanganui City and Waitotara County. The city council wanted to create a residential zoning, with the county wanting to preserve the reserve status.

It was approved for sale back in 1983, to fund the Holdsworth purchase (Otamatea Reserve) but that was not actioned.

Then came a resolution to gazette the upper part of the reserve (2004) but again it was not actioned. And neither were council resolutions to sell the lower portion (2004) or to sell it to help fund the Splash Centre (2006).

There was another resolution to sell in 2009 but two years later the opposition of a sole councillor stopped that dead.

That same year (2011) the council's holding company approved the sale, and finally last year there was a further council resolution re-affirming the 2009 decision to sell.

"The financial penalty for not completing a sale is not only in the loss of the proceeds from the sale to reduce debt. It's also in the forgone rates, and the continuing borrowing costs," Mr Vinsen said.

A similar petition promoted by Gonville residents convinced the council to go back on its earlier decision to sell Handley Park in Carlton Ave but Mr Vinsen said he did not see that as setting a precedent.

"I can't speak for other councillors, but I was convinced by the Handley Park petitioners that the reserve had considerable public usage. This is not the case for Montgomery Reserve. It only grazes a few horses and has poor access and is not people-friendly at all," he said.

He said those opposed to the Montgomery Reserve sale were worried about the loss of sea views for people driving into the city but the council plan would retain these views and also provide decent access to the reserve that will remain.

"It will offer the potential for a redesign incorporating seating and paths, so it can become more than just a view shaft."

He said any subdivision developer would have to get a resource consent for the SH3 access point and the council in turn had the opportunity to make such demands in the resource consent. There was a 20m green strip fronting SH3 and the flowering gums would be retained.

"In fact, it will become an area that will be inviting and used by the public, not secluded away as it is now."

Mr Vinsen said there had been "considerable interest" in the tender process which closes on February 4.

He said there was a shortage of potential residential land on St John's Hill and using the reserve was a prime opportunity.

"Quality residences on the high ground will present a positive impression for the gateway to Wanganui and will complement the retained sea vista and not detract from it, as some claim."