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Year in Review: January 2023

The Times-Age looks back month by month on what made the news in 2023. In January, we reported on controversial Trust House rent hikes, Waka Kotahi NZTA lowering the speed limit from 100kph to 80kph on SH2, and homelessness in Masterton and Featherston.

January 2

Train passengers were forced to trek up and over the Remutaka Hill when their replacement bus broke down near the summit. The breakdown came hours after a train collided with a milk tanker at a level crossing on Matarawa Rd, in Dalefield. Police said emergency services attended the crash, and no one was injured. The flow-on effect of the blocked train line saw commuters on a rail-replacement bus scaling the Remutaka Hill after the bus broke down.

January 3

Tauherenīkau Racecourse was thought to have broken a record for most patrons at its New Year race day, clocking more than 14,000 punters to the first race meeting of the year. Tauherenīkau Racecourse general manager Matthew Sherry said the crowd was exceptional. “The front lawn is full from the birdcage right down to the public car park fence, and I haven’t seen that before. That’s massive.”

January 5

Masterton carried the title for the second worst responding town in a census that Stats NZ would rather forget. The 2018 digital-first census was recognised, by and large, to be a disaster, with a response rate estimated to be about one in 10. Then-Stats NZ chief executive and Government Statistician Liz MacPherson resigned following a review that found the online focus meant swathes of the population were missed. It was revealed at a recent Masterton District Council meeting, that the town, percentage-wise, had the second-lowest response rate in New Zealand.

January 6

An early morning crash left a Carterton antique store in pieces, and the owners “pretty devastated”. A ute carrying two people left State Highway 2, clipped a power pole, and crashed into the side of Owl’s Attic shortly before 7.30am. Emergency services that responded to the crash said the occupants were lucky to escape without injury. Owl’s Attic owners Kirsten Ryan and Paul Bainbridge, who live at the back of the store, said they were alerted to the crash by an “almighty bang”. “And a ute was in the shop”.

January 9

A 53-year-old tramper was found dead in undetermined circumstances after activating his personal locator beacon [PLB] on a Tararua track. The PLB signal was picked up by the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand, with the beacon giving a location just below Concertina Knob in the Tararua Range behind Carterton. Sergeant Tony Matheson said the signal came about 300 metres off the side of the track in some “very difficult and very steep country terrain.”

Bail was granted for a woman with a long history of theft and trespass who allegedly enticed children to assist with her stealing. The woman appeared in Masterton District Court facing charges of wilful trespass and burglary. Judge Barbara Morris called the offending “ballistic”. “There were no charges from 2013-2020 but then there was a ballistic amount of offending over a short time. Police say there is strong evidence against [the woman], including CCTV footage and a bag of clothing. Police also are concerned of her effect on younger people, of her negative way of enticing young people to crime.”

January 11

Up to 23 more farms could be sold to become permanent carbon forests according to Masterton District Councillor David Holmes. In the final council meeting for 2022, Holmes sought to draw attention to the growing number of farms in the region set to go to market. He said the potential conversions would affect the council.“In this district alone lately 100,000 stock units have gone to forestry. Revenue from that amount of properties is approximately $50 million when [stock] prices were really good.”

January 12

January 12, 2023 marked the 10th anniversary of the brutal murder of Featherston man Glen Jones. Despite the passage of time, the crime remained fresh in the minds of those who knew him. Former South Wairarapa mayor Adrienne Staples said the unprovoked killing “ripped the guts out of the community”.“It came as a great shock, a huge shock to our community because Jonesy worked at the local supermarket and basically anybody who shopped there knew him.” Glen Jones died in the early hours of the morning on Saturday, January 12, 2013, after suffering head injuries in a vigilante attack at his home that Justice Alan MacKenzie described as the product of a “mindless mob mentality”.

January 13

Waka Kotahi NZTA signalled it would be dropping the speed limit on all the 100kmh stretches of SH2 between Masterton and Featherston to a new permanent limit of 80kmh. The speed reductions on the three stretches of SH2 from Featherston-Greytown, Greytown-Carterton, and Carterton-Masterton would come into effect in two weeks, on Friday, 27 January. There would also be additional cuts to existing speed limits introduced at the same time at the boundaries of the towns.

About 100 households were estimated to be trapped along Wairarapa’s south coast after a large slip at Tora closed the only road to the area. South Wairarapa District Council [SWDC] confirmed that the households were on the coastal side of the landslide. A spokesperson said that the exact number of people isolated and the full level of impact was being determined. The slip on Tora Rd at Little Tora is thought to be about 50 metres long. In the North Tora Gorge, it involves both earth and vegetation.

January 16

Youth gangs with members as young as nine were reported to be terrorising Masterton retailers, with one storeowner pleading for a solution beyond the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.
In a recent open letter concerning youth crime, New World Masterton owner Clive Webber said he was very concerned for the safety of his customers and staff, who were facing daily abuse. Addressing Wairarapa MP Kieran McAnulty, Webber said that since he had raised the issue last April, incidents had escalated, and he felt it necessary to bring the situation to McAnulty’s attention. “From simple stealing, this has now grown to my staff being verbally assaulted on a daily basis.”

It was a century in the making, but decorated pilot Thomas Horton’s story finally came full circle. In an emotional ceremony in Masterton, the famed Wing Commander’s children gifted his WWII medals to the Wairarapa Aero Club. Aero Club president Kevin Ormond and captain Karen Williams said the atmosphere at the club was buzzing. “It was emotional. There were a few tears and we were just blown away by the whole response to it.” Horton, born in Masterton in 1919, flew in his first plane at Hood Aerodrome when he was 10 years old, a famed Southern Cross. It was a flight that set him on course to become one of New Zealand’s most distinguished pilots.

January 19

Cyclone Hale left Riversdale farms with metre-deep river sediment covering entire paddocks, kitchens flooded, and kilometres of fence lines ruined. Mike Taylor’s farm was one of the worst-hit – all the more upsetting having just spent $14,000 to re-gravel his driveway, only to have it washed out. His cattle yards were also deep in sediment, and filled with sludge. “It’s gone right through the shed. That’s another job for another day,” he said.

January 20

By the lights of Maori astronomy expert Professor Rangi Matamua, “There is not a person on this planet who does not descend from someone who looked up at the night sky, searching for answers.” And thanks to half a decade of advocacy by a small group of local volunteers, seeking answers in the stars would be preserved in Wairarapa for generations to come, after the International Dark-Sky Association granted the region Dark Sky Reserve status. The IDA confirmed South Wairarapa and Carterton districts would join the ranks of 20 other accredited reserves worldwide, becoming the second reserve in New Zealand after Aoraki-McKenzie.

January 23

Hundreds of the region’s most vulnerable faced extreme financial hardship as 2023 brought massive rent hikes. Almost 500 Trust House social housing tenants across Wairarapa and in Tararua were being asked to pay rent increases of as much as 153 per cent from April. A total of 478 households are affected, 378 across Wairarapa and 100 in Tararua. The average uplift is expected to be about 60 per cent, ranging from the smallest at 15 per cent, to the biggest at 153 per cent. Those affected by the rent increases reacted with shock and anger.

January 24

Over the past two years, staff at South Wairarapa District Council reported more than 24 serious instances of bullying and harassment by members of the public, with many more unreported. Extreme examples included being physically attacked, verbally abused, and even getting stalked. One staff member had a drink poured over them in public. Paul Gardner, SWDC General Manager of HR and Corporate Services, described their experiences. “Staff sometimes deal with yelling, swearing, name-calling, threats to people’s personal property, threats of violence, false accusations on social media, and physical assaults. One such incident included a drink being thrown over a staff member while they were socialising.”

January 25

A total of $744,315 was shown to have been spent on Masterton’s civic centre project since July 2018. The project was put on hold in May last year, and newly-elected councillors unanimously decided in December to present options for public consultation on the project’s future. The council agreed to identify and develop options for consultation with the community including: “proceeding/not proceeding with the civic facility as provided in the Long-Term Plan with estimated costs of $71.3m including contingency; options that better utilise council’s existing assets, including the library, Town Hall and recreation centre; an option to do nothing”. In a cost breakdown released to Local Democracy Reporting, Masterton District Council figures showed the biggest spend was on external project management [$177,182], followed by payments to architects [$145,067], and internal project management [$136,438].

A staff member at a popular local eatery ended up enjoying a selfie with an international celebrity after insisting on seeing his ID when he tried to buy a beer. A patron wearing a hoodie entered Featherston bar and restaurant Brac and Bow, and asked bar manager Debbie Sinclair “what beers we had on tap and whether we did fries”.After commenting that “you look like Ed Sheeran” – an observation that elicited “a little giggle” from the young man – Sinclair asked to see his ID to ensure he was old enough to drink, in line with host responsibility rules. Laughing, the familiar-looking stranger said, “I am who you think I am,” pointing to the name on his credit card.

January 26

In the wake of a Wairarapa man’s arrest for the possession and importation of child sex abuse material, agencies were urging the region’s residents to stay vigilant and report suspicious activity. The New Zealand Customs Service said the 42-year-old Filipino national appeared at Wellington District Court recently on two charges of possessing and importing objectionable publications that depicted the sexual abuse of children. The accused arrived at Wellington Airport from a holiday in the Philippines. He was arrested by customs investigators after child sexual abuse images were found on two of his phones, and a search warrant was subsequently carried out at his Wairarapa home.

January 27

Retailers in Masterton’s central business district could be forgiven for feeling they were under siege, following a recent spate of shoplifting. A group of retailers applied for a trespass notice after being subjected to verbal abuse from an alleged rough sleeper. The latest problem highlighted a glaring gap in the system, with multiple organisations contacted by the Times-Age sidestepping the issue. Queen St businesses owners, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they were at a loss on how to deal with the man, with at least one locking their shop door “to keep staff safe”.

January 28

A Featherston mother of four was living rough in a tent just outside Featherston because she could not find a home. When Dyannah Johns became homeless two years ago, she was forced to give up her children because she couldn’t house them. After 18 months of couch-surfing, she and her partner were found to be living in the tent – their home for the past six months.

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