22 May 2017

Opponents claim Queenstown gondola expansion could be fire risk

9:10 pm on 22 May 2017

A $100 million project to double the size of Queenstown's landmark gondola ride has been challenged as a deadly fire risk.

The upgrade will include a new terminal building at the base of the gondola

The upgrade will include a new terminal building at the base of the gondola. Photo: Skyline Enterprises

The operator, Skyline Enterprises, wants to replace four-seat carriages with 10-seat cabins, and double the size of its terminals and restaurant on Ben Lomond Reserve.

A week-long resource consent hearing for the project began today in the Environment Court in Queenstown.

One local submitter, Basil Walker, said the area was covered in pine trees and questioned whether the reserve's extreme fire risk had been taken into account.

The project's architect, Michael Wyatt, said he knew the forest was a fire risk, but he had no special expertise in that area, and had not done anything special in the designs to address it.

Mr Walker pressed on, asking Mr Wyatt whether the building had been designed with the fire risk in mind.

The building would have to be clad in fire-resistant materials to meet the building code but there were no other special measures, he said.

One of the main objectors to the project, Ziptrek Ecotours, pushed Skyline's planning expert, Sean Dent, to accept that high voltage power lines going up Ben Lomond would be a major fire risk.

"Do you accept that if a fire were to occur at the bottom of the hill, that you could not evacuate the reserve by using gondolas," asked Ziptrek's lawyer, Royden Somerville QC.

"No, you could not," said Mr Dent.

"Have you done a cost-benefit analysis of burying any power lines to avoid this risk," asked Dr Somerville.

"No, I am unaware of what those costs might be," said Mr Dent.

Mr Dent accepted there was a risk, but he did not have all the information to say if burying the lines should be an appropriate condition in the resource consent.

The Queenstown gondola is already one of the resort's biggest tourist drawcards, carrying about 800,000 people a year, but it wants to get a lot bigger.

That has thrown up large parking problems, which Skyline is now promising to fix with a five-storey car park

Ziptrek Ecotours relies on the gondola to bring 95 percent of its tourists to the top of the hill to get to its zipline.

There was also discussion about the landscape and if the bigger terminals and larger gondola cars would detract.

Asked by Judge John Hassan how visible the top terminal and restaurant building would be at night, the architect Michael Wyatt said it would be well lit up but he was not worried about it.

"You do see at night time when you are walking about the town. You see it looks like a spaceship on the hill ... It will just look like a larger spaceship."

The case continues tomorrow, and is expected to run until at least Thursday.