14 May 2024

Court clears way for NZTA to acquire land for Mt Messenger bypass project

7:06 pm on 14 May 2024
Tony and Debbie Pascoe are going to the high court to challenge the Mt Messenger bypass project at Mangapēpeke Valley.

Where to? A legal challenge laid by Tony and Debbie Pascoe against acquisition of parts of their land by the Transport Agency in Taranaki's Mangapēpeke Valley has failed. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

The owner of a Taranaki farm - parts of which a court has ruled can be compulsorily acquired for the Mt Messenger bypass - says he has no regrets about fighting against the project.

The Environment Court has ruled the Transport Agency can buy 11 hectares of Tony and Debbie Pascoe's farm outright and lease a further 13ha during construction of the $280 million 6 kilometre bypass on State Highway 3.

Tony Pascoe said it was a bitter pill to swallow, but he stood by his decision to battle for the Mangapēpeke Valley.

"I've got no regrets at all. Yes, it's going to financially cripple us. We might have nowhere to live, but no I haven't got a regret. It's for the next generation somebody has to stand up to these bullies.

"None at all. You can't sleep at night, but when I'm outside at night time running my dogs ... and I can hear kiwi around the place and the beautiful clear air and the forest like it is I've got no regrets at all."

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The court dismissed arguments from the Pascoes that not enough consideration had been given to an alternative 'Route Z' over Mt Messenger that would have leveraged off the existing highway, and that NZTA had not negotiated in good faith over the acquisition of the land required for the project.

More than 30ha of native forest is being sacrificed for the project but NZTA has committed to a massive mitigation programme, including planting thousands of trees and pest control in perpetuity.

The Transport Agency Waka Kotahi welcomed the ruling, which it said supported the approach and actions it and the Crown had taken.

The decision brought to an end the latest in a series of court actions against the project.

The Mt Messenger bypass is aimed at delivering improved safety and a more comfortable drive by avoiding the existing steep and windy route which includes a narrow tunnel. The new route includes two bridges of about 125m and 30m in length and a 235m tunnel.

It is estimated it will save motorists between four and six minutes of drive time.

Tony Pascoe, who lives at Mangapēpeke Valley, says there's 23 species of native birds in the area, including kiwi roaming the area.

Mangapēpeke Valley Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

When first mooted in 2017, the Mt Messenger bypass was to costs $135m, along with a similar project at the Awakino Tunnel bypass that was completed in 2021, but costs soon ballooned.

Pascoe is now worried about the future viability of his farm.

"It's huge because indirectly it's going to take the whole Mangapēpeke Valley out, because you are not going to be able to get into the valley and do all the things we do in the valley - take our kai out of here - and it's just going to completely destroy this valley."

Artist impression of the Mt Messenger bypass project.

An artist's impression from 2022 of what part of the new Mt Messenger bypass road could look like. Photo: Supplied

The Pascoes farm beef stock on two blocks of land totalling about 250ha on the northern side of Mt Messenger. The bypass will spilt the farm in half, with 155ha in the Mangapēpeke Valley directly in the path of the new road.

Initially they were offered $600,000 for the Mangapēpeke Valley land and a contribution toward building a new home on an 11ha block they owned nearby. The valuation of the entire 250ha was $1.4m, according to the Taranaki Regional Explorer website.

Ngāti Tama exchanged 20ha of Treaty settlement land required for the Mt Messenger bypass project for a 120ha coastal property, a cultural compensation payment of about $7.7m and an environmental programme including pest management in perpetuity on 3650ha of its rohe - costing $750,000 annually.

Tony Pascoe, who lives at Mangapēpeke Valley, says there's 23 species of native birds in the area, including kiwi roaming the area.

Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Pascoe said he was still reading the decision and not sure what happened next.

"We don't know what's going to happen because the Environment Court [in a previous decision] said it's untenable to live in our home, no matter what happens in this valley. We're in total limbo."

Tony Pascoe says there's about 70 different varieties of native orchids at Mangapēpeke Valley, where he lives.

Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Costs for the Public Works Act case were awarded to the Transport Agency.

Pascoe did not know what it had cost him to fight the project.

"A lot more than we wanted to and there's a whole lot more coming by the sounds of it, so it scares the shit out of me to be honest, to be able to add it all up and think about how we are going to get through it.

"To fight this was for the right reasons. I know it's for the right reasons, but they cripple you with costs."

Tony Pascoe at Mangapēpeke Valley, where he is fighting against the Mt Messenger bypass project.

Tony Pascoe says they will have to rethink their next steps after the court decision. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

NZTA transport services general manager Brett Gliddon said the Pascoe land was the last parcel needed at the northern end of the bypass site.

"It is always our preference to purchase property by agreement rather than compulsory acquisition. In good faith, and in compliance with the legislation, since 2017 we have made extensive efforts to acquire the land by agreement."

Gliddon said the multiple legal challenges - none of which had been successful - had caused expensive delays.

"For example, a $37 million increase is the estimated impact of NZTA being unable to start work on the land in question during the 2023/2024 summer construction season alone."

He said the project had the strong support of partners, including Ngāti Tama as mana whenua, and had made great progress despite the challenges it faced, including completing 13 percent of earthworks and being prepped for the construction of the 235 metre tunnel, which was about to commence

"The contracting team has worked tirelessly and innovatively to adjust their approach while delays occurred. For example, the project's cableway to haul equipment and workers into the remote heart of the project area is a first for New Zealand and continues to receive accolades from within the industry."

Gliddon said once completed, the bypass would provide much-needed interregional economic resilience, safety and environmental benefits for all State Highway 3 users.

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