Te Trees of Te Ngae

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Rotorua Regional Airport Limited, a company owned by the Rotorua District Council, has constructed a new international airport at Te Ngae on the outskirts of Rotorua and is now claiming the right to destroy privately owned trees in a residential area a kilometre distant from its newly extended runway. Their kauripurpose is to allow heavier long-haul aircraft to fly at lower altitude over the residential suburbs of Rotorua East. The affected trees are include kauri, copper beech, oak, eucalyptus, poplar and Douglas fir, all about 50 years old. RRAL has refused to offer compensation, or make restitution for the destruction of the trees.

On the website www.tengaetrees.com there are recently posted photographs of the disputed trees, and comment on the “Rotovegas” ethos and the constitutional ramifications of the dispute (click on the “Journal” link to read my commentary). I have been swamped with such a large volume of material critical of the RDC and RRAL that, unfortunately, I do not expect that I will be able to post more than a small proportion of it on the website. For the benefit of those who live in Rotorua, there will be a “Trees of Te Ngae Open Day” at 628 Te Ngae Road on Saturday September 5. The Environment Court hearing will be on September 9 in the Maori Land Court, Haupapa Street, Rotorua. (Subject to confirmation – check on www.tengaetrees.com) If the court rules that the trees must go, my struggle will not cease. Ka whawhai tonu matou, ake, ake, ake!

Geoff Fischer

4 COMMENTS

  1. Hello Geoff I congratulate you for your stand against council.

    I am in a similar situation, however just getting ignored at the moment.

    I am 1 of 7 owners whose land has been flooded by Mighty River Power for around 40 years, to generate hydro power to New Zealand.

    My question to you is, did you make any approach to the Prime Minister to get results with your problem? I've written to Jerry Brownlee, been passed to Bill English, now back to Mighty River Power and still got no result.

    Any advice you can offer is appreciated. Thank you..

  2. Te Ngae Trees: the issue of compensation

    The issue of compensation has been a significant facet of this dispute from the beginning. But it has also been a source of some soul-searching for myself and others. The question of compensation arises out of our instinctive sense of what is a “fair” and acceptable way of “making good” an unwelcome situation which has been imposed by force of numbers or by the force of the law. Dispossession followed by compensation is what happens when the two sides are unequal in power, and therefore falls short of being the ideal way in which we would choose to manage relations in a community based on equality, justice and mutual respect. Therefore is not surprising that many who have accepted compensation for loss of property or liberty have a lingering sense of grievance. And let us be clear: a Pakeha who has accepted compensation to walk away from farm, home, or livelihood may feel the same kind of residual grievance as the hapu who have lost their kainga or marae.

    The principle of compensation is one answer to the problem of conflict over resources, but it is not the answer. It can leave the fundamental issues of “right” and “wrong” unresolved, and it usually fails to re-establish social relations on a basis of mutual respect and equality. This was brought home to me in a talk with a local kaumatua on the weekend. After suggesting to me that I could do a lot of good in the world with what was being offered in the way of compensation, he went on with honesty and wisdom to share some of his own experiences in a situation where he had received what he judged to be fair compensation, but others similarly affected had received nothing. Compensation tends to go to those who are knowledgeable, resourceful, influential, affluent, stubborn or combative. It does not necessarily go to those who are most deserving or most adversely affected.

    Compensation can be a good thing, both for its immediate practical benefits to the individuals who are compensated, and because it can set a precedent of sorts. But in practice it works imperfectly, and however well administered, it is an inadequate substitute for sound social relations based on equality and implicit respect for the rights of others to choose how they live their lives within the accepted moral standards. In the long term, compensation will not overcome that lingering resentment at the reality of dispossession. It may even generate new grievances, whether based on unjustified envy or on a genuine perception that compensation has been inequitably distributed.

    In the present case, I started out looking to the principle of “fair compensation”. I knew that any such compensation would ultimately come from the ratepayers of Rotorua, and I reasoned that since the Rotorua District Council and the Rotorua Regional Airport Ltd represented the ratepayers, then it was only fair that the ratepayers should carry the cost of the decisions made by RRAL.

    But as the case has progressed, my perception has altered. I now see that there is a serious problem afflicting local government in Rotorua, and that the resources and powers of the RDC have been captured by a narrow set of business interests. While one can fairly argue that the ordinary residents of Rotorua are, by their own omission or neglect, in some part responsible for this state of affairs, the reality is that they are still innocent victims. I am in the fortunate position of not needing compensation for past wrongs. What I want, and what I believe we all need, is government which is open and honest, and which values the rights of the most humble citizen as highly as it values the interests of the most powerful corporation. That is why I have decided to let the Judge to rule on the case rather than to go for an out-of-court settlement at this point. A judicial decision will not resolve all the issues, but it will provide some clarity as to what legal rights we all have in this sort of situation. And that will be a good starting point.

  3. New material at http://www.tengaetrees.com

    From the page Rotorua Airport Questions and Answers

    (See also the recently added page Rotorua Airport: Who pays and who benefits?)

    Is the airport financially viable?

    Avion Holdings, who had owned 50% of RRAL since 1990, could not find a way to gain a sufficient return on invested capital, until the RDC purchased the Avion shareholding in 2002. Avion had been unwilling to invest their own capital in the proposed international airport project, because the extended airport will have much higher operating and debt servicing costs than the domestic operation with no assurance of corresponding increases in earnings.

    Having acquired full ownership of RRAL, the RDC determined to proceed with the international airport project in the face of the disinterest of private investors, and the opposition of central government and Air New Zealand. In May 2008, when the project was well under way, Environment Bay of Plenty (the regional council) refused an RDC application for a $15 million cash grant to fund the airport extensions. (Daily Post 26 May 2008, Rotorua Review 10 June 2008). The logical conclusion is that Environment BOP did not believe that the proposal would conform to standard cost-benefit criteria, and the consequence is that the ratepayers of Rotorua will be required to assume the entire burden of any financial losses sustained. (The RDC has habitually succeeded in gaining its way by presenting critics or opponents of the airport project with a fait accompli. The strategy has worked with many local residents, it has worked, after a fashion, with Air New Zealand, and it may have worked with the Civil Aviation Authority, which in July of this year had concerns regarding the length of the Runway End Safety Area of the new runway, but it did not work with Environment BOP, and will not change the fact that it is the ratepayers of Rotorua who will be required to carry the financial burden of ultimate failure).

    According to the RRAL Chairman the airport extension project will only break even when there are six trans-Tasman flights arriving each week. At present, Air New Zealand has promised two flights a week, starting in December 2009, and no other airlines have announced services. Therefore the project will be loss making for at least the first six months.

    A capital investment of $30 million brings a debt servicing cost of $1.8 million a year at a 6% interest rate. In addition to the normal airport operating costs, the RDC/RRAL is liable to contribute towards the cost of government services if there is a shortfall in the targeted 15,000 international passenger arrivals per year. RDC/RRAL will have to pay the Crown $120 for every passenger arrival short of the 15,000 target figure. Two fully booked Airbus 320 flights as planned by Air New Zealand will bring in 300 passengers per week, thus reaching the requisite target of 15,000 arrivals. But if, for example, only two out of three seats are booked, or if services are suspended for four months of the year, then the RDC/RRAL liability to the New Zealand government will come to 5000 x $120, or $600,000.

    What is the economic impact of the trans-Tasman airport on the region?

    The capital expenditure on the terminal and runway extension are “sunk costs”, which means that even if there is no way that the airport can service its debt, or repay capital, the trans-Tasman airport could still try to justify remaining in business so long as it was paying its operating costs. The RDC might then attempt to argue that the economic benefit to the tourism/accommodation sector would justify keeping the facility operational. (See Who pays and who benefits? )

    But the economic benefits to the district, in both relative and absolute terms, may not be as great as the public are being lead to imagine. There were a reported 167,000 Australian overnight visits to Rotorua in 2008. Direct Air New Zealand flights on the proposed level of service will only bring in an additional 15,000 arrivals a year even if the flights are fully booked by passengers who would not have chosen to visit Rotorua in the absence of a direct Sydney-Rotorua air service.

    Australian visitors spend on average just over $300 each during their stay in Rotorua, so the additional spending would be $4.5 million, or an increase of approximately 10% in current spending by Australian tourists. (An unsubstantiated report dated 8 August 2009 in the the Daily Post, which unashamedly supports the project, claims that ‘ Transtasman flights could potentially inject between $6.75 and $12.3 million into the local economy’). Under the best case scenario the Air New Zealand service will increase the local GDP of $2.8 billion by only 0.2%, and if many Rotorua people use the service to opportunistically visit Australia, as they are being urged, the benefits to the local economy will be reduced in proportion.

    Even in the best case scenario, the lion’s share of operational and debt servicing costs will be carried by the hard-pressed ratepayers of Rotorua, who have lower median incomes than their counterparts in the nearby city of Tauranga and already have to contend with higher council rates. Any benefits, on the other hand, will accrue to the small section of the community who have significant investments in the tourism/accommodation sector.

  4. The present parties to the Te Ngae Trees legal dispute (Rotorua Regional Airport Limited and myself) have now agreed to enter into mediation. I believe that the decision to accept mediation is the right one, because it opens up the possibility of a solution which, while not ideal from the perspective of either party, may provide a means of avoiding conflict.

    My bottom line in this dispute has always been that the legitimate property of an ordinary citizen should not be forcibly seized, taken or destroyed for the financial benefit of other individuals or business entities without payment of fair compensation.

    Ideally, I would want to retain and protect in perpetuity those trees, which I and others have protected against the forces of “economic development” for the past five decades. However if fair compensation is offered I will accept on the basis that compensation is an acknowledgement of the worth of trees to the environment, and provides the means by which those values can be re-established on another site.

    I would be accepting of a settlement which recognises the principle of justice, and the value of trees, partly because of my confidence that justice, and nature are both hardy types. We only need to reserve them enough space in our world, and they will flourish.

    My understanding is that a successful outcome to the mediation process would not constitute a legal precedent for others in a similar situation. It would still be a moral and political precedent however. And there are ways in which we can ensure that the interests of all affected tree owners of the eastern suburbs of Rotorua are not compromised or in any way adversely
    affected through this process. If you are one of those tree owners and want to ensure that neither you nor any of your neighbours is left “out on a limb” in this process, then please contact me personally as soon as possible.

    Any other comment would also be welcomed.

    PLEASE NOTE: THE ENVIRONMENT COURT HEARING PREVIOUSLY SCHEDULED FOR WEDNESDAY SEPTEMBER 9 IN THE MAORI LAND COURT AT ROTORUA WILL NOW NOT TAKE PLACE ON THAT DAY DUE TO THE AGREEMENT OF THE PARTIES TO ENTER INTO MEDIATION

    The open day at 628 Te Ngae Road will proceed as planned on Saturday September 5, 1pm-5pm

    I will advise you of the new hearing date in the event that the mediation process is unsuccessful, and will also post it on the
    website http://www.tengaetrees.com

    Geoff Fischer

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