Bach owners at isolated Whanarua Bay are pleading with the council to give them formal access to their properties before land is transferred to iwi.
Ōpōtiki District Council has received 112 submissions on a proposal by Te Arawhiti Māori Crown Relations to transfer several parcels of council-owned reserve land to Te Whanau a Apanui as part of its Treaty of Waitangi settlement.
The proposal would see land at Hawai, Omaio, Maraetai Bay and Waihau Bay on the East Coast transferred to iwi, however, it is the land at Whanarua Bay which is proving to be contentious.
One of the parcels of land at the idyllic bay provides the only way for bach owners to access their properties on the shorefront.
To further complicate matters, the land in question is reserve land and is said to be an ancient urupa. Access has never been granted or formalised by the Ōpōtiki council, making the use of that land as a roadway illegal.
Of the 112 submissions received, 47 were from bach owners at Whanarua expressing their concern that if the iwi gained ownership they would lose access to their homes.
Many of the submissions implored the council to ensure access was assured before the land would be given back.
Some of the submissions noted that if there was no land access to baches, it may impede emergency services and prevent residents from maintaining septic tanks and other assets.
In her submission, bach owner Meryl Bacon said a friend of her daughter had required an ambulance due to an allergic reaction this summer.
Another submitter said he required an ambulance this summer after a "misadventure".
The original issues with access began when Whanarua Bay was subdivided by Romio Wirepa in the 1960s. No accessways to the newly created blocks were formalised then, or since.
Residents used to access their baches alongside a creek, as per a Māori Land Court order, but that land was returned to the local hapū as part of its Treaty redress. The hapū then fenced it off. Residents then created their own road across the reserve land, which is steep hillside.
They have maintained the road and installed traffic lights.
Closer to the sea, the road crosses a thin strip of privately-owned land, where bach owners have paid for an easement so they can get to their properties.
The road is also the only way many other Whanarua Bay property owners and the public can access the ocean.
Hundreds of people illegally use it every year, especially over summer.
Many submissions expressed anger the council had not resolved the access issues earlier, particularly when bach owners had been requesting an easement use over the reserve land for several years.
"The access has proven to be a failure of the Māori Trustee and Ōpōtiki County," wrote Amy Gordon in her submission.
"To be responsible for a mistake is one thing, but to knowingly seek to transfer these reserves without first fixing the mistake is even worse.
"I am confident that councillor (Barry) Howe doesn't sell takeaways that aren't fresh, as I'm sure councillor (David) Moore doesn't sell properties with faulty S&P agreements, as I'm sure councillor (Steve) Nelson doesn't send out tyres with a puncture, so why would you want to transfer a reserve without first fixing the access error of the 60s?" she said in her submission.
Jonathan Hawksworth wrote in his submission that the council's failure to implement an easement had burdened bach owners with a problem not of their making.
"We believe that this is an ODC and Crown-created issue, and one that the council and the Crown should rectify before any transfer of ownership takes place, if this were to occur," he wrote.
There were also many who said that as the land was sold by Wirepa, it was never "stolen land" and should therefore not be subject to treaty claims.
Some of Wirepa's descendants also opposed the land being returned to iwi.
Raymond Wirepa wrote in his submission he did not understand why the whānau had been "sidelined" by a process that "only recognises iwi and hapū".
Over 50 submissions were received from iwi members who were supportive of the transfer. Most of these submissions were the same copied and pasted message.
The message states: "On 4 December 2020 the following resolution was passed unanimously: The Apanui Hapu Chairs Forum agree that all reserves stolen by the Crown and local government be returned back to hapu unencumbered with the Crown also providing resourcing to manage the land going forward.
"Te Whānau a Pararaki/Te Whānau a Te Ehutu (CARRIED).
"The Te Arawhiti & Te Whanau a Apanui Joint Request for Ōpōtiki District Reserves must align with the resolution passed on 4 December 2020. It currently does not.
"All reserves must be returned to hapū/original landowners as Māori customary land and not under the Reserves Act or jurisdiction."
Ōpōtiki councillor and Te Whānau a Apanui spokesperson Louis Rapihana previously told the Ōpōtiki News that the iwi was seeking the land at Whanarua Bay be returned as it was a place of "great sacredness".
He said the reserve was a place of wahi tapu for the hapū of Te Whānau a Kahurautao and Rangi i Runga as it was an urupa and the resting place of many tipuna.
"Other reserves were taken with the rating of land and whānau not being able to pay the rates when land was surveyed and split up," Rapihana said.
"It is only right these lands are returned to the iwi and hapū of Apanui."
The remainder of the submissions received were either not clear on their stance or were about unrelated topics.
All submissions will be considered at a council meeting later this month before a final decision is made.
Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers' Association and NZ On Air.