The vacant site on Featherston’s main street. PHOTO/FILE
Featherston residents will get an opportunity to have questions answered on the recent land fiasco at a public meeting.
The date of the meeting has yet to be confirmed but is a result of a push for more information on how a deal to develop a prime piece of real estate on the town’s main street fell over.
It was made public last week that a Chorus telecommunications duct which runs under the land owned by South Wairarapa District Council would cost “hundreds of thousands” of dollars to move so the section can be built on.
The council swapped the land at 57 Fitzherbert St, on State Highway 2, with Trust House in 2013.
The council built the town square on half of it and attempted to sell the other half to be developed into a retail hub.
But the developers walked away from the project earlier this month after several resource consent issues.
Tuesday’s Featherston Community Board meeting centred on the debacle, with frustrated townsfolk filling Kiwi Hall to hear five community members speak on the matter.
As a result of issues raised by residents, the board moved a motion for a public meeting with an external facilitator, to be fronted by South Wairarapa Mayor Viv Napier and council chief executive Paul Crimp.
Jennifer Gray told the board the canning of the proposed development was a big step backwards for the town.
She said there were many questions begging to be answered.
These included whether Trust House knew about the main duct route before the land swap occurred, whether the district council carried out due diligence on the land before acquiring it, and who was ultimately responsible for the massive oversight.
Karen Shaw addressed the council’s lack of accountability.
She said right from the outset the land swap deal lacked transparency.
The council then facilitated a “flawed” consultation process regarding the town square, which the community did not see the need for with five public spaces just “a stone’s throw” away from the land.
Regardless of the public’s views, the project was pushed ahead by the council, which also allowed the Menz Shed to be placed on prime commercial land, despite community opposition.
On Monday, Mrs Napier said a full report of all land issues on Fitzherbert St would be completed by council management.
“The mayor has called for an internal investigation,” Ms Shaw said.
“After all this, we are supposed to trust the council investigating itself?”
Ms Shaw called for an independent review.
Martine Bijker said she was very angry and very sad in the current state of affairs – and the crowd agreed with this sentiment in a show of hands.
“We are mourning a massive loss of opportunity for this town.”
She addressed the “toxic” culture at the council but acknowledged that council and community needed to work together in moving forward.
Ms Bijker said Featherston was stuck with “prime commercial land as a [supermarket] car park, a gravel pit, and an unloved and unused ‘squircle’.”
Not only had a good councillor resigned, but the council planning and environment department had seen a massive turnover in staff in five years – signs of systemic failures.
She has filed a vote of no confidence in Mr Crimp, saying “culture comes from the top”.
Jade Holley demanded a public meeting and said Mr Crimp, who was not at the board meeting, “should be here fronting up”.
As former deputy mayor and now mayor, Mrs Napier had overseen the whole “debacle”, starting with the land swap, and it was time she “step up and show leadership”.
Ms Holley referred to the mayor’s statement that a community survey would help decide how the land be used.
“It’s not our job to come up with a solution to this issue, it’s yours.
“We want to see external professional input, which is what we’ve been saying since the start.”
Featherston Ratepayers and Residents Association spokeswoman Sue Fox said the council mistook the low level of community engagement in a town square proposal survey for people not being interested in what happened in their own town.
The town was not keen on the proposal and this was backed up by a petition in opposition with hundreds of signatures.
Ms Fox said a “prudent” council would have engaged a lawyer to check for liabilities before acquiring the land.
She suggested a boardwalk in the town square be dismantled to expand the commercial area.
Mrs Napier said matters raised by the public relating to Mr Crimp would be addressed by the council chief executive committee.