Scene Stealers

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The outlook from richard and Lynn Farrar's house is of undulating, sun-toasted pastures framed by snow-tipped mountain ranges. It's a picture-book setting. But when the retired farmers bought their 1-hectare Wakatipu Basin property-10 km from Queenstown, in New Zealand's south island-in 1999, no one told them what their neighbor was planning for those views. If his subdivision, already approved by the district council, is given the green light by the Environment Court, the stillness will be disrupted by bulldozers, the open vistas dissected by roads and fences, and the sheep replaced by 13 new houses. The Farrars are dismayed-and puzzled. After all, says Richard, subdividing this rural land "would destroy the reason why people choose to live here."

The problem for the Farrars-and many of their rural neighbors-is that more and more people are moving into this spectacularly beautiful area. The district's growth rate (4.7% last year) has eclipsed the New Zealand average for the past decade, and unleashed a rural building boom. Some locals applaud development: Mayor Warren Cooper says it has made the Queenstown Lakes District "a much more interesting and, indeed, enchanting place." But landowners who don't want their rural idylls swallowed up by suburbia are rebelling. Lawyers are busy people in Queenstown these days: there are 36 appeals currently challenging new rural building projects.

Sheep still outnumber Kiwis by 20 to 1 in a country with a population density of 14 people per sq. km-half that of the U.S. Those vast expanses of clean, green countryside are drawing not only tourists but big-city escapees. As a result, scenic spots like Tauranga, near Rotorua, and the Bay of Plenty are facing heavy developmental pressure, says Environment Ministry policy analyst Lesley Woudberg.

But it's Queenstown that has catapulted the issue into the spotlight, thanks in part to a nasty exchange of words between mayor Cooper and resident actor Sam Neill, a leading spokesman for the development critics. Cooper called the Jurassic Park star a "chardonnay socialist" and an "environmental dilettante"; Neill said the former National minister represented a "handful of ruthless and greedy developers who want to carve up Queenstown for a fast buck."

The storm has its roots in the 1991

Resource Management Act, which allows New Zealanders to use their land in any way they wish, provided there are no adverse environmental effects, and requires the nation's 69 district and city councils to prepare a plan setting out what's acceptable-and unacceptable-in their local area.

Nine years later, Queenstown's district plan is still caught up in appeals before the Environment Court. But in the three years since the plan was modified, Cooper's council has been inundated with applications from landowners seeking to take advantage of its more liberal regulations. If all the proposed subdivisions go ahead, the number of houses in the Wakatipu Basin could soon triple.

While the critics deplore the suburban character of village-style projects like the 160-residence Quail Rise, developer David Broomfield insists he's green, not greedy. "We've imposed strict color schemes and height restrictions," he says. But Wellington architect Ian Athfield, who designed actor Neill's Lakes District home, says such limits "are stupid. They aren't going to help at all if the house has been built in the middle of the landscape." 

Despite the pace of development, Queenstowners complain that they rarely get to hear about construction proposals. "We usually find out about them when the builders start laying the foundations," says planning lawyer Jay Cassells. That's because the locals haven't done their homework, says Cooper. The mayor says he's never been an advocate of uncontrolled development. But with the downturn in agricultural exports, "people can't be expected to farm themselves into penury to provide green pastures for passing tourists and these nimbycome-latelies." Cattle farmer King Allen agrees that rural subdivisions are "inevitable." But he's still taking the council to the High Court for failing to tell him they'd approved the construction of a 400-house village next to his 60-hectare cattle farm.

Like other locals, Allen says he's not against development; he just wants intelligent development. According to Neill, whose home overlooks the Dalefield valley, that doesn't include farmer Mel Fordyce's plans to have the valley rezoned for high- density housing. Fordyce calls his opponents "hypocrites," saying they took advantage of earlier subdivisions to build their homes. The case won't be decided until the Environment Court brings down its landmark judgment on how the area around Queenstown should be treated. In its interim rulings, the court has sought to rein in development on mountain slopes and hillsides, but not on valley floors. Planning lawyer Warwick Goldsmith says that's "logical and sensible," because valleys can't be seen from public roads. Wakatipu Basin residents disagree. "There shouldn't be any sacrificial landscapes," says film producer Jeff Williams.

Most New Zealanders don't yet understand the importance of the landscape, "because there's no national body advocating its protection," says the Environment Ministry's Woudberg. She hopes Queenstown's development debate will force Kiwis to look at the long-term implications of unchecked development. The government is also taking a stand: its Resources Management Act Amendment Bill, due to be passed this year, is expected to bolster local communities' say in residential developments.

Conservation-minded Queenstowners are taking matters into their own hands. They plan to contest the October council elections, and have a good chance of success: the popular Cooper is not standing. If they win, residents can expect to see development focus on the district's towns, not the countryside. That would please Richard Farrar, who would like to see the Wakatipu Basin designated a national treasure. If the nation's most popular tourist destination can't resolve the development dilemma, say the conservationists, there's little hope for New Zealand's other scenic spots.