The Whangarei District Council is defending its support for a development proposal by the Ruakaka Racing Club, which plans to subdivide its land and build up to 350 housing units.
Maori and conservationists say the council has given the club financial and planning help for a plan change that is reckless in its disregard for the natural environment and climate change.
The land intended for subdivision is behind sandhills on the Bream Bay coast south of Whangarei.
Club spokesperson John Fairlie says the council's approval secures the club's financial future and the jobs of about 300 people employed by the racing industry and related businesses in the Ruakaka community.
One councillor, John Williamson, says councils should be helping all industries that employ people and have potential to grow. He says the Ruakaka course is a regional and national asset, with its all-weather sand track, and could attract more people and horse-related businesses to the area if it provides space for them to live and work.
The council says the club will have to come up with management plans to mitigate any hazards or environmental risks from subdivision, and those plans will have to be publicly notified.
However, Maori hoping for the return of ancestral land at Ruakaka say the council has just made it harder for them to ever get it back.
The hapu Patu Harakeke was not notified of the sale but when the 50ha site was sold to the club by Landcorp in the 1980s there were memorials on the title warning that it was subject to a Treaty claim and could be ordered to be returned to tangata whenua.
A Patu Harakeke spokesperson, Julianne Chetham, says that hope is now all but dashed.
She says land is not simply given back by the Crown: iwi must buy it at market value with money from their Treaty settlement, and once the racecourse land is developed its value will rise and it will become even less affordable for the hapu.
Ms Chetham says the same goes for other Crown land at Ruakaka that, like the racecourse land, was taken from Maori under the Public Works Act for electricity generation.
The club bought the land from Landcorp for $270,000, at a time when the GV was $1.8 million, and it has since risen steeply in value.
Ms Chetham says the problem has been compunded by the prospect of Ngapuhi's Treaty claims being settled by one iwi board, Tuhoronuku. She says one small landless hapu is unlikely to have its grievances redressed in any meaningful way, if the Crown will deal only with a central body.
Northland conservationist Margaret Hicks, who submitted against the zoning change, says it flies in the face of the Government's latest advice on climate change and sea-level rises. She says the council and the club are also ignoring recent warnings of the heightened tsunami risk to Northland's east coast, and the decision is irresponsible and stupid.
The hapu and the conservation groups who submitted against the Ruakaka Racing Club plan say they can't afford to challenge it but they will support the Department of Conservation if it decides to appeal.