Airport lease should be scrapped, court hears

Photo: ODT files
Photo: ODT files
A group  representing nearly 3500 Upper Clutha residents opposed to the development of a second jet airport in the Queenstown Lakes district opened with its submissions in a High Court judicial review in Queenstown yesterday.

Wanaka Stakeholders Group barrister Julian Miles QC told Justice Gerard van Bohemen its membership made up 49% of the adult population of Wanaka.

The Queenstown Lakes District Council’s 100-year lease of Wanaka Airport to the Queenstown Airport Corporation (QAC) in March 2018 was unlawful because the consultation process was inadequate and negotiations were conducted in secret, Mr Miles said.

The case for scrapping the lease and restarting consultation from scratch was "overwhelming".

The council, which owns 75.01% of the airport company, produced a statement of proposal on the lease in early 2018 that was effectively a "brochure".

With "pretty pictures and comforting words", it suggested any expansion of the airport would be modest and not include commercial jet services.

Negotiations over 13 months in 2017 and 2018 were secretive, and after the lease was agreed, the council gave "evasive" and "misleading" responses to requests for information from the public and media.

When the lease agreement was finally released last September, it was found to be "fundamentally different at every level" to what had been outlined in the statement of proposal, he said.

Believing that "massive tourism" would benefit the community, the council had given the QAC "total control and total licence" to introduce commercial jet services from Auckland and the east coast of Australia as early as 2025.

The airport company had plans to spend between $300million and $400million on a runway extension and other infrastructure, an investment that would require up to 70 aircraft movements a day — a take-off or landing about every 12 minutes — to be viable.

Statements by council chief executive Mike Theelen and QAC chief executive Colin Keel that no decisions had been made on introducing jet services were "disingenuous to the highest degree", he said.

Although the council would argue at the hearing that it could control what happened at the airport through the QAC’s annual statement of intent, that was "ludicrous" and legally unfounded.

Mr Miles said two key principles in such litigation were a council’s duty of candour to its ratepayers, and the presentation of evidence by decision-makers rather than paid employees.

It was "remarkable" that in the thousands of pages of evidence presented to the judge, neither the council, Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult nor QAC directors had produced a single document — notes, minutes or reports — pertaining to the lease negotiations.

An example of the control the lease had ceded to the QAC was its ability to veto a proposed expansion of the council’s Project Pure wastewater plant on land next to the airport.

It had only recently come to light that because the expansion was "in the way" of the QAC’s plans to lengthen the airport’s runway, the council was being forced to spend an additional $2.7million on relocating it to land farthest from the runway, he said.

guy.williams@odt.co.nz


 

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