Up in the air: South’s big airport poser

Queenstown Airport. Photo: File
Queenstown Airport. Photo: File
Should Queenstown Airport be moved? That question is put up and almost instantly shot down by the Queenstown Airport Corporation in its master plan document. But, it’s an idea that continues to hover over the conversation about the future of air links to Central Otago and the Lakes District. Mark Price reports.

The Queenstown Airport Corporation (QAC) is well down the track with its "dual airport" plan for expanding Queenstown Airport and adding Wanaka Airport to the mix.

It is the corporation’s  preferred option and it would seem most unlikely it would want to change tack now.

However, its biggest customer, Air New Zealand, threw a spanner in the turbine last week  by suggesting a new airport somewhere else in the South should be considered — one able to handle all the 7.1 million passenger movements predicted for the Central Otago-Lakes region by 2045.

The airline’s chief ground operations officer, Carrie Hurihanganui,  made the suggestion in a submission on QAC’s proposal to expand noise boundaries at Queenstown Airport to enable more flights.

It caught some civic leaders by surprise, and Queenstown Lakes District deputy mayor Calum MacLeod said he suspected politicking on the part of Air New Zealand.

Ms Hurihanganui declined to speak to the Otago Daily Times this week. In its master plan, the QAC said it had evaluated moving to a new site, and its "short list" consisted of  two — Castlerock/Five Rivers, near Lumsden, and Hawea Downs.

But  the  QAC did not want to get involved with either site  because of cost, infrastructure issues and distance from Queenstown.

The Five Rivers site did, however, deliver "the lowest noise impact" and was "capable of meeting forecast growth", the master plan said.

The QAC declined an ODT request for  the documents that might explain the proposal in more detail.

However, one document has come to light.It is the one that sank the idea of an international airport at Lumsden in the early 1990s.

Queenstown man Basil Walker had managed to convince the Southland District Council a $27 million Southern Lakes Airport was a good idea and the council gave its consent.

But then, in July 1994 came the appeal to the Planning Tribunal — the forerunner to the Environment Court — and a for-and-against argument that will resonate with Frankton residents.

Judge Shonagh Kenderdine presided over the eight-day hearing in Invercargill.

Wanaka Airport, which already has  noise boundaries in place to accommodate airport growth. Photo...
Wanaka Airport, which already has noise boundaries in place to accommodate airport growth. Photo: File
According to her 78-page written decision, Mr Walker proposed the airport be built on a 867 hectare farm midway between Lumsden and Mossburn.

He argued the site was "ideally located" for tourists intent on travelling to Queenstown, Te Anau and Milford Sound.

The site had "near-perfect" orientation and topography and aircraft approaches were "largely unencumbered" by hills.

The plan showed a runway of 2.5km, able to be extended to 3km. But all the points in favour counted for little when it came to the judge’s decision.

Appellant  J.A. Campbell had told her the airport would be  a "major blot on the landscape".

Mrs Campbell said she lived at Mossburn, 8km from the airport site, and taught at the Lumsden School, and expected to be under the flight path in both locations.

Judge Kenderdine: "She stated she would find it very difficult to remain calm and free from irritation when teaching with noisy jets overhead". S.A. Sutherland gave evidence the noise would have an impact on his "passion for gardening" 7km from the proposed airport.

And  L. M. McKerchar was dubious about the effectiveness of noise insulation of his house.

So, while Judge Kenderdine accepted the site was "physically suited" for an international airport, the noise and visual effects trumped the advantages.

Judge Kenderdine allowed the appeal and cancelled the council’s consent, noting it had been a costly exercise for both sides.If the QAC was to revive the Five Rivers airport idea, it would be buying back into the same expensive argument, with no certainty the Environment Court would take a different view from Judge Kenderdine.

And, to launch a new airport on a greenfields site at Hawea Downs — or Cromwell, or Alexandra, or Lauder, for that matter — it would seem to face the same hurdle at the planning stage.

But if Frankton residents were to defeat the QAC’s attempt to extend noise boundaries at Queenstown Airport, in the same way Lumsden residents succeeded 24 years ago, what then?

And, that is where the Wanaka Airport option has a distinct advantage over other potential locations, thanks to a little bit of forward planning by the Queenstown Lakes District Council in 2011.

That is when the council stiffened the rules protecting Wanaka Airport from neighbours who do not like noise.

District plan change 26 set up noise boundaries to "accommodate future growth" at the airport, making new development near the airport "sensitive to aircraft noise" a prohibited activity.

Former deputy mayor Lyal Cocks said this week the district plan provision was a "huge asset" to QAC.

He agreed it gave  Wanaka a big advantage over  other  proposed airport locations. So Air New Zealand’s suggestion of a location other than Wanaka looks like the hard option, particularly with QAC having the ace of plan change 26 up its sleeve.

And, as for the lesson from Lumsden, it would seem a teacher with a classroom of children and a man who is a

keen  gardener are not to be taken lightly when it comes to arguments over noise.



There is always Dunedin 😀

Yes, why not Dunedin?