Bid to secure land for community use

Lewis Verduyn-Cassels
Lewis Verduyn-Cassels
River conservationist Lewis Verduyn-Cassels has put his money where his mouth is in a bid to secure a piece of land for community use.

As a driving force behind a proposed public conservation park at the Luggate Red Bridge, Mr Verduyn-Cassels had until 5pm yesterday to put together an offer to buy one of three Contact Energy-owned riverside properties featured in park plans.

Late yesterday afternoon, he made Contact an offer for the property, which he hopes to then vest in a community trust as the Red Bridge River Park.

He has leased the land from Contact since 1991, living on site while doing his own native restoration work there.

''I've always regarded it as a public space. I feel very privileged to live here ... I want to continue to care for it.''

Although there had been strong support from the community to have the area permanently available to the public, there had been insufficient time to mount a fundraising campaign to buy the land, Mr Verduyn-Cassels said.

Contact advised in May last year it intended to sell the properties at some point. Then on March 21 he was ''suddenly informed'' the sales process was being ''fast-tracked'' to meet an end-of-financial-year deadline.

''I find myself in a a very difficult situation because I sincerely believe this riverside land should be a public space for the community and I find myself having to buy it myself in order to do this. I don't feel like I have any other choice.

''I'm taking out two mortgages. I'm stretching myself to the limit to do what I can to purchase this property in order to create a river park to put it in a trust for the community. Some people might think that's crazy but I can't help who I am,'' he said.

''If Contact demands more than I can offer then I would like to ... talk to them about it ... and come to some kind of solution that's good for everyone concerned.''

On Monday, Contact said it had identified a 2.2ha block of land on either side of the Luggate end of the Red Bridge which it ''may be willing to gift'' to the Upper Clutha community.

Mr Verduyn-Cassels said that block, combined with the property he hoped to buy and the marginal strip connecting them, would be enough to enable work on the park to begin.

Although the other two properties needed for the project were sold this month by Contact to undisclosed buyers, it was hoped the trust responsible for the park would be able to work with the new owners to restore the land to its native condition. If his offer was accepted, funding applications would be made for the restoration work, which he would continue to carry out as an on-site ''river keeper'', Mr Verduyn-Cassels said.

However, it would not be ''moral'' for him to seek reimbursement from the trust for buying the land.

''It's my fate that I have to suffer this debt for the community ... The right thing to do is to try and secure this land so that the community can enjoy it. That's the bottom line for me.''

Contact's trading, development and geothermal resources project manager, Neil Gillespie, said yesterday he could not comment until the company had considered any offer to buy the land.