Picton aquarium has month to vacate building after High Court ruling

9:20 pm on 18 November 2022

By Maia Hart

Ecoworld in Picton - single use only

The aquarium is located on Picton's foreshore on land owned by Port Marlborough. Photo: Supplied / STUFF

A Picton aquarium has 20 working days to leave its waterfront building after a High Court bid to stop its eviction failed.

A decision from Justice David Gendall, released today, said EcoWorld's claims, namely that it had a 10-year right of renewal on its lease, had been "dismissed in their entirety".

EcoWorld owner John Reuhman had built his case "exclusively" around a letter from his landlord, Port Marlborough, in 2015, offering him a right of renewal of EcoWorld's lease.

But as soon as Reuhman made a counter-offer to - as his lawyer accepted - "chance his hand for better terms", that offer was "extinguished", Justice Gendall said in his decision.

It was a basic principle of contract law that a counter-offer was a rejection of the original offer, Gendall said.

Talks between the two over the next three years discussed a number of "potential changes" to the lease, which included the "possibility" of a right of renewal, the decision said.

Yet throughout all talks - where Reuhman sought to achieve "better rent, future development, and early termination conditions" - no agreement as to a new lease was ever reached.

Justice Gendall said Reuhman should have known he was being evicted on 22 July, 2021 when the lease expired, but instead refused to vacate the land.

"Mr Reuhman himself accepted in cross-examination, the parties were in negotiations as to the terms of the lease, but no variation to the lease, and in particular no right of renewal, was ever agreed," the decision said.

Evidence was heard from both parties during a six-day High Court trial in September. Port Marlborough filed its own action, seeking possession of the property, and costs to cover the rehoming or release of wildlife and removal of the building.

Justice Gendall described Port Marlborough as a "careful, accommodating and patient" commercial landlord throughout.

He said Reuhamn's claims of slaughter were "unfortunate to say the least", after the port complained Reuhman deliberately made inflammatory and misleading comments to the wider Picton community and the media.

"They do not appear to be substantiated and in any event as I see it there does not appear to be any evidence of poor behaviour on the part of the port here," the decision said.

EcoWorld director John Reuhman

EcoWorld director John Reuhman's claims that he'd have to "slaughter" animals if evicted were "unfortunate to say the least". Photo: Supplied / STUFF

Justice Gendall said he was satisfied Port Marlborough had met its obligations in respect of the lease, and went "above and beyond" to try and achieve a new lease with EcoWorld.

"The most that could be said is that the port made EcoWorld an offer - indeed, numerous offers - for a 10-year right of renewal, which, however, EcoWorld never accepted."

He said the "evidence is clear" the port had on multiple occasions offered to assist with a "sustainable and effective" rehoming of the animals and marine life.

"On this, to its credit, it [Port Marlborough] has engaged with Te Papa Atawhai/ the Department of Conservation, the Zoo and Aquarium Association, and other expert bodies to do so."

Aquarium at Ecoworld in Picton - single use only

Justice Gendall said the port had offered several times to rehome the marine life in a "sustainable and effective" way. Photo: Supplied / STUFF

The decision said the only time the port might have "bordered" on being "somewhat unfair" was in April 2021, when it made an offer of $75,000 to get EcoWorld out of the building, and gave Reuhman only two weeks to consider the offer.

Meanwhile, it was "unlikely" councillors-at-the-time David Oddie and Nadine Taylor, now Marlborough mayor, told Reuhman, as he claimed, the port would "never kick EcoWorld out", Justice Gendall said, as both knew the Marlborough District Council could not interfere with the port's business. The port was owned by the council.

Justice Gendall gave Reuhman four weeks, or 20 working days, to vacate the land.

"I have no doubt the port would actively and properly carry out the safe and effective rehoming as it has assured the court it would be able to do if this may be required," the decision said.

Justice Gendall said the port was entitled to damages for the costs of removing goods, including the aquarium and its stock which remained after the 20 working days. Reuhman must also pay any legal costs incurred by Port Marlborough as part of the proceedings.

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