Great for the cycling public, but what about the landowner?

Photo by John Fridd.
Photo by John Fridd.
The Otago Central Rail Trail has been a boon to the region, but Gerrard Eckhoff says some landowners along a proposed new trail from Alexandra to Lawrence may be disadvantaged.

The rail trail from Middlemarch to Clyde is now the single biggest non-farming business in the Maniototo-Alexandra area - by a margin.

Those of us who were sceptical that a disused railway line could be the draw card for thousands of tourists into the previously all but ignored landscapes now eat a regular portion of humble pie.

Even the most strident opponent of hoards of tourists biking and walking through a very different part of their world now accept that the revitalisation of Middlemarch, Hyde, Waipiata, Oturehura, Wedderburn, Omakau etc is solely due to the rail trail.

The Government's proposal to further develop this concept offers real hope to sustain towns like Roxburgh, Millers Flat, Beaumont and Lawrence as these traditional service towns to the agricultural industry find it tougher and tougher to survive.

The Roxburgh to Beaumont cycleway will be sited on the marginal strip, or road reserve, as will some of the Beaumont to Lawrence section.

That is not the case with the Alexandra to Roxburgh section, where the route would cut grazing blocks in half, leaving them with no water for stock.

There is now a huge public expectation that the revitalisation of the towns and small settlements along the rail trail will soon repeat itself from Alexandra to Lawrence.

This is where the gradient starts getting steep.

Local landowners from Alexandra and down through the Roxburgh Gorge now find they are the meat in the sandwich.

Much of the land required for the trails is in freehold title, with the exception of some pastoral lease land in the Roxburgh Gorge.

This pastoral lease land requires the permission of the Commissioner of Crown Lands, who has recently pointed out to landowners in the area that the legal and technical difficulties are considerable, along with the costs associated with any changes to the leases to accommodate an easement. Such costs are not allowed for in government funding of the trails.

The impact of a new cycle trail on normal farming operations is very significant and cannot be dismissed or compared with the Middlemarch to Clyde trail.

The creation of a cycleway in the Roxburgh Gorge will need to start from scratch, whereas most other areas have remnants of Crown land rail reserve, which has been legally resumed by neighbouring landowners.

Some freehold lifestyle-block owners bought their property for the peace and tranquillity this part of the world offers, while others welcome the business opportunity the cycleway will bring to some.

Not all farmers want to become involved in the tourism industry.

The landowner is keenly aware of the benefits to the district, area and region but is, in many cases, still wondering what benefits they will accrue from their gift of an easement through their private land.

A recent request from a private property owner to the Department of Conservation for an easement under their rail trail saw a bill for $100,000 - or $20,000 per metre - being requested for that easement, so, in effect, a government department established there was very real commercial value in an easement.

The cycleway trusts are funded only for construction and fencing but not for any form of compensation to the private landowner.

Local councils appear to be fully supportive but will not consider offering, or do not have the power to offer, rates relief in return for the public good of access and encumbrance on the land title by way of an easement.

Landowners might be forgiven for drawing a comparison with, say, a large retail store with what appears to be underutilised space.

A request for the right to set up a business under their roof without any rental or compensation would be greeted with disbelief by the owners.

A private person with more bedrooms than they need is never asked to take in tourists who need a bed for the night without some form of redress.

The private person adjacent to a cycleway may well set up a bed and breakfast as a commercial venture to offset the loss of their privacy if they wish, but is never cajoled into changing their lifestyle except by personal choice or commercial imperative. Landowners elsewhere are reporting they are being harassed by cycleway proponents who cannot understand their reluctance to allow a huge public benefit to occur on private land for nothing in return.

The Government appears to have underestimated the impact and costs to the private landowner and the trusts associated with these cycle and walkways.

Yes, there is also a real opportunity associated with the creation of these access ways, which is well recognised by the landowner, if they can offer accommodation, but not all can.

There is also the opportunity cost of other unforeseen enterprise that will be lost once an easement is granted - and that is forever.

It is hoped that this really good concept of national cycleways will offer the public wonderful recreational opportunity, especially in this iconic part of the world.

However, creative thinking is needed about how the landowner can also be sustained alongside all the cycle shops, restaurants, cafes, motels, hotels, retailing etc.

Landowners know what they are being asked to give.

Many are somewhat unsure that a vote of thanks and receiving our reward in heaven really cuts the mustard any more.

Gerrard Eckhoff is an Alexandra landowner.

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