Kawakawa Station. PHOTO/FILE

STEVE RENDLE
steve.rendle@age.co.nz

The fight between the Hong Kong-based owner of Kawakawa Station, near Cape Palliser, and the Walkways Access Commission is not over, despite the High Court lifting a caveat preventing the station’s sale to a New Zealand buyer.

Eric Chun Yu Wong bought the station near Cape Palliser in 2015 but has since been embroiled in an increasingly unpleasant battle with the Workways Access Commission over public access.

In a statement last week, Kawakawa Station Ltd said it was appealing a High Court decision to put a stay on a judicial review of the commission’s processes.

“The aim of continuing to seek the judicial review is to have the legality of the commission’s processes and decisions reviewed by the High Court, including the failure by the commission to consult tangata whenua,” the owners said in a statement on Monay.

Also part of the appeal is the Kawakawa 1D2 Ahu Whenua Trust, which owns neighbouring Ngawi Station.

Trustee and Ngati Kahungunu ki Wairarapa kaumatua Sir Kim Workman said last week the commission’s approach had led to xenophobic and racist abuse of Kawakawa Station staff.

The commission declined to comment further on any issues raised by the station owner, after previously stating the sale of the land to a New Zealand resident would end its involvement in the access issue.

The owners maintain the commission had no legal basis on which to lodge a caveat preventing the sale, which it did after attempted mediation broke down in December last year.

“We wanted to act in good faith and be open and transparent in our dealings with the commission, so we advised the commission of the existence of the offer before the mediation. We made it clear that we wouldn’t be taking any steps with regard to the offer until after the mediation.

“After the caveat had been registered, we found out that the Overseas Investment Office had told the commission back in October 2018 that the commission didn’t have an interest in our land that would allow the commission to lodge a caveat.

“Contrary to that advice, the commission tied us up in the court system to get the caveat removed.”

The commission wanted a public route up Otakaha Stream, but Wong objected, and was supported by the trust on the grounds that the area contained burial and archaeological sites.

In the past, the route has generally been available to trampers and hunters by telephoning the owners of the stations through which it passes.

“The previous existing arrangements for public access via the Otakaha Stream to the Aorangi Forest Park have continued,” the owner’s statement said.

The owners and the trust want a judicial review to ensure issues are dealt with publicly.

“Both we and the trustees wanted to have these issues aired in open court in our judicial review proceedings, where the public can find out what really happened.

“The commission seems determined to block this, and have matters dealt with by private arbitration [closed to the public], whilst at the same time conducting media coverage that appears to us to be calculated to damage our image in the eyes of the public.”

The Kawakawa owners maintain that they have met the OIO’s condition of “consultation” with the commission.

“From our perspective, the commission’s approach was to dictate to us where the walking access route would be and the forms of easement that would be required. We think this is not what the Overseas Investment Act intended, nor what the condition of consent required [that is, access that was reasonable having regard to the intended use of the land] and beyond the commission’s legal powers, which are only to negotiate [and not impose] access.

“We had proposed a public access route on the station with high scenic and recreational values. The commission was not interested in, and never engaged with us about, that route, which would have worked with the intended use of the station land.”

The OIO required the owners to develop a business plan, which included the addition of tourism to what was a marginal farming operation. It has run a luxury camping operation on the land, which includes the Putangirua Pinnacles.

After the breakdown of mediation, the owner’s said, “it became clear to us that the commission would never agree to a reasonable solution and that we would be caught up in ongoing issues about the walking access”.

“This would mean we would be unable to implement our business plan and run an economic enterprise, which our consent conditions required. We therefore made the very sad decision that all we could do in the circumstances was to accept an offer that had been made to purchase the station.”

The owners said the commission’s proposed access route didn’t make sense.

“The commission says walkers would walk in the river, up rapids set amongst deep gullies, to keep on our land, rather than go on to the flat dry river bed trail on Palliser Bay Station – which defies logic.”

Brian Jephson of Palliser Bay last week described the commission’s actions as “land acquisition by stealth”.