Meridian offloads farmland

Almost a decade after Meridian Energy canned its planned $1.2 billion Project Aqua hydro-electric canal scheme on the Waitaki River, nearly 900ha of North Otago farmland bought for the project is to go under the hammer.

A total of 880ha of land owned by Meridian, including three dairy farms and six support blocks around the Waitaki Plains and Kurow, have been put up for sale by CRT Farmlands Real Estate, before the partial privatisation of the State-owned energy provider.

While the price they might fetch was not known, 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.

Although the Government is due to sell off a 49% stake of the energy provider when a share offer begins on September 30, a Meridian spokesman said the timing of the sales was not linked to the float.

''We are currently selling properties on the south bank of the Waitaki, which was land originally earmarked for Project Aqua. Because this project has ceased, the land is now excess to our requirements.''

All of the properties for sale were in use, he said.

''All tenants and sharemilkers have been consulted about this over the last six months and we will meet all of our obligations under current tenancy agreement contracts.''

Although Meridian yesterday would not provide details on the valuation of the properties, which would be sold by public tender, when Meridian cancelled Project Aqua in 2004 it had spent about $50 million buying the land.

Meridian also owns more than 1000ha of land on the lower Waitaki, which would have been used for the proposed North Bank project, which was put on hold at the start of the year due to falling electricity demand.

However, the spokesman said Meridian was considering its options in regards to those properties.

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

The $1.6 billion project would have built a 34km combined tunnel-canal system connecting two powerhouses on the Waitaki, capable of generating enough power to supply 140,000 homes. Project Aqua was cancelled in 2004, three years after plans were first announced.

Meridian has already sold some of the 3100ha of rural land and property property it bought or inherited for that 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 went ahead.

- andrew.ashton@odt.co.nz

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