A floating structure in an isolated fiord – complete with a helicopter pad and a hot tub – is at the centre of a legal dispute between a prominent family and a regional council.
The structure has been a source of disquiet in Tamatea/Dusky Sound, with critics claiming its owners are positioning to use it as a “private holiday home”.
It belongs to The Alpine Group, which is majority owned by members of the prominent Wallis family. It serves as a base for the company’s tourism business, which advertises one-day excursions on the fiord for around $18,000 per charter.
The company in 2015 bought a dilapidated barge that had been used for storing fishing equipment. Resource consent was granted in 2016 to replace the barge, on the basis that it would be ‘like for like’. Several local groups gave written consent on that basis.
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But when the new structure was positioned in 2017, it was larger than some had anticipated. It also had unconsented additions: A storage shed, a hoist, two floating docks, laundry facilities, and a hot tub, an independent commissioner concluded last year.
After a compliance visit, Environment Southland told the company to apply for retroactive consent for the additions. It did so in 2021.
As part of that application, the company made another request: That family members and friends be allowed to use the structure for private accommodation for up to 50 days per year.
Currently, accommodation is only allowed in extenuating circumstances, such as if weather prevents helicopters from flying.
The application was rejected by the independent commissioner, Sharon McGarry, in August. In a scathing decision, she said the original application for the structure contained “inaccuracies” regarding its size and use, and said it was “arguable” that the structure as a whole was unconsented and therefore unlawful.
The company has appealed the decision to the Environment Court, where next month it will be subject to court-assisted mediation.
‘Private holiday home’
The structure has become a notable – and controversial – example of development in an area that has otherwise remained highly natural.
Tamatea/Dusky Sound is amongst the most inaccessible parts of New Zealand. It has no road access or permanent settlement. The structure is moored in Cascade Cove, which is one of the largest bays in the fiord and contains no other structures.
Commercial activity has increased in the fiord in recent times, particularly since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. There are now up to 20 commercial operators, including The Alpine Group, which mostly offer chartered boat trips though the fiord.
The new structure, in particular, has been a source of tension.
Several groups opposed the recent consent application, arguing the structure was already having a detrimental impact on the natural environment and was taking up too much space.
The Fiordland Marine Guardians, in its submission to the independent commissioner, said it had “serious concerns” about the size of the structure, and accused the barge’s owner of trying to turn it into a “private holiday home”.
The group had agreed to the original consent for the structure on the basis it would be a “like for like” replacement. Instead, the structure was around four times bulkier, the group estimated, and had become a “hub of activity”.
The Department of Conservation (DOC) also opposed the application, describing it as “inappropriate”. If private accommodation was allowed, it would “have a precedent effect of allowing the coastal marine area of Fiordland to be used for private residential activity”, its submission said.
The agency’s Director-General, Penny Nelson, was “disappointed” that the applicant had “carried out significant additions to the barge structure without obtaining a resource consent”, the submission said.
The fiord’s kaitiaki, Oraka Aparima Rūnaka, also opposed the application: “We are concerned that the mauri, including the natural character and visual amenity is negatively impacted by this proposal,” its submission said.
The industry group for rock lobster fishing said the proposal would have an “unacceptable adverse effect on landscape, natural character and amenity values of the area”.
‘A long connection with Fiordland’
The majority shareholders of The Alpine Group are the Wallis family, who have a “long connection” with the area.
“The family has continued to travel to the area, staying on their own vessels, and more recently staying on the barge,” it said in its submission.
“They have a great deal of respect for the area and want to continue to share this extraordinary part of New Zealand with their friends and family, including their own children, so they have the opportunity to carry on this connection to the area.”
Sir Tim Wallis pioneered the practice of capturing live deer from helicopters and founded the Warbirds Over Wanaka event.
The company also owns Minaret Station, a farm and luxury lodge near Wanaka. In 2011, the National Business Review estimated Wallis’ fortune at $70m.
In October, The Alpine Group was fined $325,000 for a helicopter crash that killed three people: DOC employees Paul Hondelink and Scott Theobald, and pilot Nick Wallis, Sir Tim Wallis’ son.
Another of Wallis’ sons, Matt, had died in a separate helicopter crash three months earlier.
In its resource consent application, the company said it didn’t know at the time the barge did not meet the conditions of the resource consent. Environment Southland staff had not raised concerns during a site visit before it was towed to Cascade Cove.
Because additions such as the floating docks, the storage shed, and the hot tub were not part of the structural design, they were not thought to breach the rules.
The additions had little impact on the environment beyond what was allowed, the company said, and the structure itself was in a concealed cove, meaning it was not easily visible.
Its use for personal accommodation would be “opportunist in nature”, a document submitted by the company said. Private visits would only happen occasionally, usually for 2-3 days at a time, and require no changes to the structure. The only change from the status quo would be people being there at night.
Accommodation would not be used for commercial clients – only the family and friends of the company’s shareholders.
The arguments were rejected by McGarry, who said the structure and its associated use, were “resulting in adverse effects on the environment and are compromising these outstanding values which are of national and international importance and must be protected”.
The Alpine Group declined to comment, citing the ongoing court action.