QLDC rejects airport expansion plan as residents attack
Wave after wave of impassioned public submissions have once more left the Queenstown Lakes District Council in no doubt that there is little appetite for our airports to get much bigger.
The occasion was an Extraordinary Meeting of the council and the main topic on the agenda was whether to accept a revised Statement of Intent (SOI) from the Queenstown Airport Corporation. Many councillors observed today that the SOI had changed little from the original version and sent mixed messages around growth and sustainability. The SOI is the blueprint that defines how the local airports operate and develop.
Mayor Jim Boult had a sense of what was coming, getting in some opening comments where he stressed his love of the district and determination to protect it.
But even the Mayor must have been surprised by the number of submissions from the packed public gallery and the strength of the views presented. There was even a three minute specially composed song, a sort of Ballad to Queenstown, from Craig Smith - the famous Wonky Donkey author.
Mark Sinclair from the Wanaka Stakeholders Group accused the council and airport corporation of inadequate consultation, being full of spin and ended by saying "the outcome of this meeting will either fill you with great pride or great shame."
Meg Taylor from Wanaka observed that not many towns in the world with a population of only 10,000 can justify a $400 million airport - "so why Wanaka?"
"Why should we be bullied into thinking this is unstoppable?"
QLDC candidate John Glover laid into the QLDC for what he claimed were governance failures. "The council has not set proper direction, the QAC is doing whatever it likes. A dreadful example of poor governance. This is your responsibility."
Painter Marion Marquand let her art do the talking by introducing a landscape depicting the Remarkables with the addition of grotesque, zombie-like tourists and a sky full of commercial aircraft.
Another resident asked "Are we crazy - are we trying to destroy this planet?"
A local tourism business owner said that even he wanted the growth to stop and added that his children's lessons at the local primary school were frequently interrupted by jet noise from the nearby airport.
At one stage a member of the public wondered if any of the Queenstown Airport Corporation directors were at the meeting, as many of them live in Auckland. A slightly diffident Norm Thompson introduced himself from the back of the room, he now lives in Queenstown but is Air New Zealand's former Deputy CEO.
In the end it came down to a vote after the re-drafted SOI was attacked for not changing much from the previous version and mixing up the contradictory concepts of growth and sustainability. A majority of councillors voted to send the document back for further work - it was not accepted.
It is unclear how long this game of cat and mouse can go on. Public sentiment seems to be growing in direct proportion to the airport corporation's reluctance to give significant ground on continued Queenstown expansion and ambitious plans for Wanaka airport.
Nobody has yet given any real detail about how the $500 million plus cost of the current expansion plans is to be financed, but ratepayers seems reluctant to take on more debt via the QLDC's 75% ownership of the QAC, especially with rates already going up by around 7% a year.
Many have observed that half a billion dollars of debt can only be paid off by even more tourists, creating a self-fulfilling cycle of massive growth and the risk of over-tourism ironically destroying the main reason people come to the Southern Lakes.