13 Apr 2016

Long-running land dispute nears resolution

1:54 pm on 13 April 2016

One of the country's longest-running land disputes is nearing resolution.

New Plymouth council last night voted unanimously in favour of a proposed local bill giving Waitara leaseholders the right to buy the land under their homes, and allowing the return of some land to Te Atiawa.

Waitara as seen from the Manukorihi lookout. Waitara has a population of about 6800 of which about 40 percent identify as Maori.

The origins of the dispute lie in the confiscation of land from Te Atiawa in the 1860s. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

The deal would see more than $60 million from lease sales pumped into Waitara though a new entity made up of iwi and council appointees.

But it is unlikely to please everyone. Long-standing lease holders are unhappy at the proposal they pay market value for the unimproved land - on average about $90,000 in Waitara - and some iwi members still believe all of confiscated land should be returned.

The 780 Waitara leases have been a bone of contention ever since the land was confiscated from Te Atiawa in the 1860s after a disputed deal at the Pekapeka block sparked the Taranaki Land Wars.

Leasehold properties on Battiscombe Tce, Waitara.

Leasehold properties on Battiscombe Tce, Waitara. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Over the years, leaseholders have sought the opportunity to buy the freehold title to their properties while Te Atiawa have wanted the confiscated land returned.

In 1989, the council decided to freehold the land, and a bill was taken to Parliament. The government of the day raised concerns about the land being sold and asked for a solution to be reached with Te Atiawa.

In 2014, the council offered to transfer the Waitara leases to Te Atiawa for $23 million as part of its $87m Treaty of Waitangi settlement with the Crown.

The iwi, however, refused to take them and instead entered into an agreement with the council to take a local bill to Parliament, which would allow for the leases to be made freehold.

Aubury Street resident Ian Morton wanted to hear more of the details, such as the freeholding price.

Aubury Street resident Ian Morton wanted to hear more of the details, such as the freeholding price. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Liana Poutu, chair of the iwi's post settlement trust Te Kotahitanga, said the bill did not make up for past wrongs.

"Our entire tribal rohe was confiscated and we are not having our entire tribal rohe returned, so in that sense it is a compromise. And even our treaty settlement, which is separate from this agreement, that doesn't fully compensate for all of the land that was confiscated historically.

"We understand that compromise has to be made, and so that is how we are approaching this and moving forward."

If the proposal becomes law, about 60 hectares of reserve land will be returned to Te Atiawa and another 16ha made available to the iwi for development.

Ms Poutu said the proposal in general pointed to a brighter future for township's 6800 residents.

"It's an opportunity for us to work together with not only the council but the people of Waitara, including our own people, to enhance what is happening in Waitara and to provide opportunities to grow and strengthen the awesome things that are happening out there."

Waitara Leaseholders Association secretary Eric Williams said the bill had nothing in it for the more than 100 lessees his organisation represented.

Leaseholders wanting to buy their property would have to pay the unimproved value of their section, or on average about $90,000, which Mr Williams said most would not be able to afford.

"Waitara will be a place where you can't afford to live unless they come up with a pretty good deal to freehold your section," he said.

A Te Atiawa iwi member, Shona, said more land should have been returned.

"We were offered to have the leasehold lands back as part of the settlement. Sadly our negotiators saw fit to say 'no thanks it doesn't matter', and so based on a call made by a very few people, a whole majority have been dismissed."

Te Atiawa iwi member Mereaina Kirkwood says real estate agents have already been asking if she wants to sell her Battiscombe Tce home.

Te Atiawa iwi member Mereaina Kirkwood says real estate agents have already been asking if she wants to sell her Battiscombe Tce home. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Optimism over deal

Despite these reservations, many Waitara residents were optimistic about the deal.

Battescombe Tce pensioner Mereaina Kirkwood would not be buying her lease but thought the ability to freehold would be good for the town.

"If what the council says and the money would come back to Waitara, I'm all for it. I mean it's a good little town, everybody has looked after their houses. I'd love it if all the lease that is paid is counted as part of the price."

The sooner the changes came in the better for leasehold property owner Lisa Williams. "If we could freehold our property, that adds value to our property and they've said all that money goes back into the town so it's a win win really."

Aubury Street resident, Ian Morton, was optimistic about the possibility of freehold but wanted to see the fine detail.

"I guess the concern will be as to how much the freeholding price will be.

"One thing I'm imagining the council won't do is apologise to the leaseholders because we've been messed around for years."

The bill goes out for consultation and hearings are set down for June. If adopted, it is hoped to have a first reading in Parliament before October.

Jonathan Marshall believes unimproved land value offered to leaseholders should be well below market rate for sections in Waitara.

Jonathan Marshall believes unimproved land value offered to leaseholders should be well below market rate for sections in Waitara. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

No quick buck for leaseholders - real estate agent

Sheryl Page has owned the Harcourts franchise in Waitara for more than 20 years and said she expected around half of the leaseholders would buy their sections over time - but she did not anticipate a sudden spike in property values.

"If people buy their properties it will align them with the freeholds. They won't make more money by paying for the section, but it will align them with the freeholds and the stigma of leasehold won't be there."

Leasehold properties in Waitara sell for about $150,000, or around $100,000 less than freehold titles.

Ms Page said she expected the properties that would do best out of the proposed bill would be those with views of the Tasman Sea or over the Waitara.

"It has to help the town because 40 percent of the town is leasehold and it has to have an effect on Waitara. It has to make it more a place to come, to live cause we've got everything here."

Harcourts franchise owner Sheryl Page expects about 50 percent of Waitara’s leasehold property owners will buy the freehold title to the land their home sits on.

Harcourts franchise owner Sheryl Page expects about 50 percent of Waitara’s leasehold property owners will buy the freehold title to the land their home sits on. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Key parts of the proposed bill:

*Leaseholders will receive a right to buy the freehold title to their property, for the unimproved land value and administrative costs, with no time limit imposed. The freeholding right will continue even if the lease is sold. Leaseholders who do not exercise this right will be able to continue to rent their land.

*The funds from the leasehold land - both rents and proceeds from sales - will be divided between the New Plymouth District Council and the Taranaki Regional Council, which have committed to reinvesting it into the Waitara community.

*Te Kotahitanga o Te Atiawa Trust will be gifted some land in Waitara and have the right of first refusal on other blocks of land.

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