Land sale process pleases Meridian

Energy company Meridian yesterday confirmed it was in the final stages of selling almost 900ha of farmland originally earmarked for use in the controversial Project Aqua hydroelectricity scheme in Waitaki, netting the company tens of millions of dollars.

Although the company would not disclose if it had recovered the estimated $50 million it spent buying the land, a company spokeswoman said the company had sold eight farms in the Waitaki with a June 2 settlement date, while tenders for a further three farms closed on February 7.

She said negotiations on the remaining three farms were ongoing.

The sale prices for the farms were commercially sensitive, but the energy company was ''really pleased with the process''.

A total of 880ha of land, including vacant land plots, three dairy farms and six support blocks around the Waitaki Plains and Kurow, were put up for sale by CRT Farmlands Real Estate in September.

Meridian had originally bought the land for its $1.2 billion Project Aqua hydro-electric canal scheme on the Waitaki River.

The Otago Daily Times understands Waitaki Plains dairy farms with Fonterra shares could be worth more than $40,000 a hectare, and support units $20,000-$25,000 a hectare.

That could net the part-government-owned company more than $20 million from the properties it has sold or is in the process of selling so far.

When Meridian cancelled Project Aqua in 2004, just three years after plans were announced, it had spent about $50 million buying the land.

Although the latest farm sales were put up for sale just before the partial privatisation of the energy provider on September 30, Meridian had previously stated that the sales had not been due to the impending share float.

Meridian had previously sold some of the 3100ha of rural land it bought or inherited for the canned project and is keeping some in a ''land bank'', as compensation for taking land if its north bank tunnel concept between the Waitaki dam and Ikawai goes ahead.

Meridian also owns more than 1000ha of land on the lower Waitaki, which would have been used for the proposed North Bank project, but a decision on what to do with those properties is yet to be made.

The company is understood to have spent more than $13 million acquiring land for the North Bank project before land access negotiations were suspended.

The $1.6 billion project, which would have built a 34km combined tunnel-canal system connecting two powerhouses on the Waitaki, was put on hold at the start of last year because of falling electricity demand.

andrew.ashton@odt.co.nz

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