Shelly Bay: The $500m boutique development, the protest group and the celebrity backer

Less than two weeks after a group of local iwi warned Wellington City councillors their Ihumātao moment had come, a land occupation began at Shelly Bay.

There are only a handful of people keeping watch at the land on Miramar Peninsula during weekdays, but Mau Whenua has a list of reinforcements on speed-dial if bulldozers arrive.

They’re a group within Taranaki Whānui challenging whether iwi-owned land at Shelly Bay should have been sold to developers in the first place.

And they’ve got a celebrity backer in director Sir Peter Jackson.

A resource consent has been granted for the $500 million development, featuring 350 new homes, a boutique hotel, and a village green.

Mau Whenua represents those who voted not to sell the land, those who have reconsidered their position on the sale and no longer support it, and those who say they didn’t get a chance to vote.

The scope of that representation also includes “all New Zealanders who oppose the current development proposal”, according to the group’s Facebook page.

The most recent grievances which led to tents being erected at Shelly Bay stretch across a decade.

Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust (PNBST) was established in 2008 to receive and manage Taranaki Whānui’s Tiriti o Waitangi settlement.

In 2009 the trust used about half of its $25 million settlement money to purchase land at Shelly Bay. The iwi was asset rich, but cash poor.

A housing crisis

In 2014 Housing Minister Nick Smith and Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown announced a proposed Wellington Housing Accord.

This was so the council could access powers to fast-track resource consents and District Plan changes with a view to enable more homes.

In 2015 Wellington City Council voted to make Shelly Bay a Special Housing Area under the new legislation.

It meant the eventual resource consent for the development at Shelly Bay was non-notified.

Current Wellington Mayor Andy Foster has described it as an “abhorrent” piece of legislation that undermines democratic processes.

By the time Smith officially made the announcement at the end of 2015, the Special Housing Area at Shelly Bay was double that originally proposed.

“The yield will jump from 150 to 300 houses, with a mix of both residential and commercial development. The Shelly Bay development will now include the wharf, which may allow for its redevelopment for ferry services to Wellington’s CBD in the future”, Smith said at the time.

Mau Whenua claims this happened without the iwi’s knowledge or approval.

Iwi land gets sold to developers

PNBST then made moves to sell the land in 2016, but the trust failed to get the necessary 75 per cent majority vote.

Instead the land was sold separately in parcels to Shelly Bay developer Ian Cassels, it’s alleged, as a way around the deal being classified as a major transaction.

Mau Whenua claims the trust went against the will of its own people and that the deal was done in secret.

Iwi members were later told in a May 2019 newsletter the deal was essential to the survival of the trust and was needed to fund housing commitments in Eastbourne.

“We assure you the sale did not constitute a major transaction nor were we taken advantage of by developers.

“We received a price and an arrangement we considered fair to both ourselves and the party we sold to – The Wellington Company.”

The three parcels of land were sold for $2 million in 2017, a fraction of the original cost. A fourth parcel was later sold for $10 million.

But former trust chair Neville Baker has previously told the Herald that the iwi’s partnership with developers was based on an “authority” to do so.

“We took that plan out to the people and we consulted.

“The majority of our people agreed that plan was the way forward. There was a minority who actually objected and who are still objecting, but in consultation and working with our own people, you need to take note of what the majority of people say.”

Mau Whenua complained about the voting process and the Māori Land Court went on to appoint Sir Wira Gardiner to undertake an independent review.

His findings were released earlier this year.

Gardiner found 2752 people had their application to become registered iwi members declined – many without a clear reason as to why.

It also found a further 9139 members were listed as “gone no address”, meaning there was a large number of “lost” potential voters.

Money, money, money

In April 2019, Mau Whenua filed paperwork to become an incorporated society, which formalised a channel for litigation and any donations to help fund it.

Just a few months later they filed legal proceedings at the High Court in a bid to return Shelly Bay land to iwi ownership.

Financial statements for the year ended March 31, 2020, show the incorporated society’s total income from donations and fundraising amounted to just $5849.

But litigating Shelly Bay doesn’t come cheap.

Another group, Enterprise Miramar, has clocked up $440,000 worth of donations to help pay for its legal challenges against the development’s resources consents.

The business improvement district group is concerned about roading and congestion issues as well as environmental effects.

Court documents have revealed WingNut Films, of which Peter Jackson is a director, has offered to pick up the tab for Mau Whenua’s legal case, which is still waiting to be heard by the High Court.

The company has agreed to meet certain costs over and above those met by the plaintiffs.

The donation agreement outlines that WingNut Films must not interfere with, meddle in, or otherwise influence the proceedings.

It also states the company has no claim over, or right to, any recovered amounts by way of damages.

The Jackson question

Jackson, who lives nearby, owns tens-of-millions of dollars’ worth of commercial property in Miramar tied to the Weta group of film-making companies.

He is a long-standing opponent of the proposed development at Shelly Bay.

The famous film-maker once looked at the possibility of creating a movie museum there, but the idea never materialised.

Over the years, emails have been sent flying in a war of words between Wellington City Council, Jackson, and Cassels.

Jackson’s interest in Shelly Bay is best summarised in a searing email he sent early last year to then-Mayor Justin Lester, after receiving an invitation to discuss the development.

He described the development as one that would invoke blocks of Soviet-era apartments dumped on Wellington’s picturesque peninsula.

Jackson acknowledged something needed to happen in Shelly Bay, but believed “any development should be sympathetic to the environment and as a unique piece of foreshore, Shelly Bay should retain a large public use component”.

He and his partner, Dame Fran Walsh, also explicitly stated in the email they have no plans, or desire, to build anything at Shelly Bay, despite rumours suggesting otherwise.

In another email later that year, Jackson said he was deeply concerned about the council’s approach to the development.

“It has been alleged the conduct of some WCC officers might be reminiscent of the unsavoury political practices normally found in countries like Albania (and that’s with apologies to Albania)”, he said.

The final straw

The Shelly Bay controversy ended up being a high-profile local body election issue that prospective candidates were asked for their stance on.

It was important because those who were elected would go on to vote that term on whether to sell and lease council-owned land at Shelly Bay to make way for the development.

Diane Calvert, Teri O’Neill and Jenny Condie all said they would not vote to support the Shelly Bay development if it got resource consent.

But when it came to the actual vote, they had a change of heart.

Mau Whenua claims the democratic process of the people of Wellington has therefore also been undermined, along with iwi.

Following the vote, Cassels told RNZ’s Morning Report that “we are starting next week anyway”.

And so the land occupation at Shelly Bay materialised.It was the final straw.

Occupation organiser Anaru Mepham is confident Mau Whenua’s story is compelling enough to have the land returned to the iwi.

“Our immediate goal is working through till March but then see how it goes. There will be a whole bunch of us, we’ll end up rotating through and it will develop and grow.

“The legality is that they shouldn’t have sold it, it was an illegal sale. It needs to be returned,” Mepham said.

Each day those who are occupying the land start their day with a karakia at 7am by the pou whenua, then head back to what they call “base camp” for kai and to plan their day.

Their legal case is due to be heard by the High Court in March 2021.

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