Money and trees are being used to get planning permission for billionaire Peter Thiel’s Wānaka luxury lodge proposal, commissioners have heard.
Tourism expert Stephen Hamilton told the Queenstown Lakes District Council commissioners considering the resource consent application that the lodge would attract “higher value tourists”.
These were people who contributed to the natural environment, culture, society and economy, he said.
Nearby luxury lodges charged up to $9500 per night, he said.
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However, lawyer Phil Page, who is representing neighbouring landowner John May, said Hamilton’s evidence was irrelevant.
“Does spending lots of money in the local economy mean that you get to adversely affect the ONL (outstanding natural landscape)?” he said.
Thiel’s company, Second Star Ltd, has proposed building the lodge on a 193-hectare site on the outskirts of the Otago tourist town.
Thiel made his fortune as the founder of PayPal and as an early investor in Facebook. His name has not been mentioned during the hearing.
Page raised concerns that the application only looked at the effects on the landscape on the site, and failed to consider the wider landscape context.
“It’s development by a thousand cuts.”
The proposal relied on the use of vegetation to conceal the buildings, he said.
“It would be quite wrong to trade off indigenous biodiversity benefits against a landscape adverse effect.”
Earlier on Monday, commissioners heard from Tokyo Olympic Stadium architect Kengo Kuma that the lodge would become an “icon” for Wānaka.
Kuma’s business designed the five-building lodge despite never having visited the proposed site due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Kuma said the architects were inspired by the grand landscape and native materials in the area.
“Our objective was to design organic architecture that fuses into the landscape and respects indigenous nature.
“I strongly believe the design will be a new milestone for the relationship between architecture and nature … an icon for Wānaka,” he said.
The lodge would accommodate up to 30 guests across three buildings, which would be set into the landscape, with “green” roofs planted with a variety of plants.
There would be a meditation building, and a “back of house” building, which would not be visible.
Buildings would be curved horizontally and vertically to blend into the landscape.
Experts have said the buildings would be “reasonably difficult” to see from public places and would not be visible from any neighbouring residences.
However, environmental groups have opposed it on the basis of its visibility, and a council planner has recommended the proposal be rejected.
Second Star lawyer Mike Holm said he struggled to understand the “air of negativity” that permeated the council planner’s report.
It appeared to place no weight on the benefits of the project, which included contributions to tourism and employment, public access improvements on the adjoining Te Araraoa trail, and the revegetation of about 96ha of former farm land.
There were “revealing deficiencies in terms of the objectivity, fairness and balance that an application is entitled to expect”, Holm said.
Commissioner Wendy Baker said the panel had insufficient information to make a decision on the ‘back of house’ proposal.
Planner John Edmonds said the proposed facility would be discreet and contain maintenance equipment, storage and potentially accommodation for staff.
“You’re asking us to give them 300 square metres of free rein,” Baker said.
It was not a residential development as Thiel did not expect to live at the property, but would visit for a week or two each year.
Seagliders are being developed by ex-Boeing engineers with funding from investors who include US billionaire Peter Thiel.
Ecologist Simon Beale said threatened species on the site that would benefit from the development included tree daisies and the thorny native plant matagouri, as well as at-risk species the southern grass skink and Kawarau gecko.
A significant enhancement project was proposed, which included the removal of grazing, new plantings and restoration of wetlands, matched only by work at Walter Peak Station, he said.
Page said an 85ha revegetation project on May’s nearby property involved 130,000 plants over 15 years.
The hearing continues on Tuesday.
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