A government failure to commit to the proposed Warkworth to Wellsford Road of National Significance (RoNS) has left scores of property owners sitting on heavily devalued land that they can neither sell nor develop.
Initially, the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) was engaged in purchasing programme to acquire properties along the indicative route of the RoNS.
But property owners who indicated they wished to sell early say negotiations with the NZTA have stalled since the Labour-led government indicated its priorities had shifted away from RoNS toward light rail, urban cycleways and safety improvements on existing roads.
Property owners say they face the worst of all possible worlds. Selling on the open market right now will realise only a fraction of the land’s value, since any new owner will still face the uncertainty of whether the RoNS will ultimately be completed by this or a future government.
Dairy farmer Greg McCracken, whose Te Hana farm could be divided by the indicative route, says while selling is not an option, neither is investing further in affected properties.
“Most business and farm owners are intent on investing in their business, either to sell at a good price or pass on to their children. But it’s pointless investing in my farm if I am going to end up losing it anyway to make way for a new road,” he says.
Mr McCracken says the uncertainty could continue for decades.
“The road might be built within the next 10 years or it might take 20 years. In the meantime we are stuck. We’re sitting around wondering what should be doing. It’s stressful.”
Mr McCracken’s sentiments are echoed by fellow dairy farmer Neil Jones who, at 64, says he does not have the time to wait for the next 15 to 20 years while the government makes up its mind.
Nor does he have the option of selling up right now and maybe losing “a couple of million dollars” because the government cannot tell him what compensation he might expect to receive for the 70 hectares of his land that could be required for the RoNS.
“We have had a gutsful not knowing what is going on,” he says.
Brothers Mark and Brett Illingworth, who bought 50 hectares in Phillips Road just months before the indicative route was announced, say they have been treading water for the past two years waiting for a definite decision.
“It took us seven years to find the right piece of land for our dream of building an adventure tourism project,” Mark says. “We’re prepared to take the compensation and go, but we don’t want to sell if the motorway isn’t going through. Some landholders have already moved on, and I can only guess at how they will feel if it turns out their move was unnecessary. NZTA should stop leading people on with letters that say nothing.
“Our kids are sick of us talking about it. It’s dominated our lives, we just feel we can’t get any direction.”
Yet another property owner, who asked not to be named in case it prejudiced future negotiations with NZTA, says he was among the first to offer to sell his modest lifestyle block to NZTA to make way for the RoNS.
Initially there was enthusiasm, but now every time he calls NZTA “it’s just a dead end.”
The owner, who is in his late sixties, says he’s desperate to sell and join his children, who live outside the area, but it appears he can neither sell to the NZTA nor on the open market, unless he accepts a knock-down price.
The issue was especially galling as several nearby properties had already been sold to the NZTA for good prices.
In a letter to affected property owners last month, the NZTA explained a recently released draft Government Policy Statement (GPS) on land transport would strongly influence which parts of the NZTA work programme would be progressed and when. The letter went on to say that the NZTA could not comment on future plans for specific transport projects, including Warkworth to Wellsford, until there was greater certainty about the GPS, which is expected to be finalised at the end of next month.
“We acknowledge the frustration that this may result in for communities and people affected by this project,” the letter said.
NZTA spokesperson Darryl Walker says around 90 properties are affected by the indicative alignment of the Warkworth to Wellsford RoNS.
So far, the NZTA has purchased nine of these properties, representing 90ha, for about $9.4 million.
Mr Walker could not say whether the NZTA had suspended its property acquisition programme pending greater clarity on government policy, but did say the agency normally sought to acquire land no more than three years ahead of an expected construction start date.
North left out in cold by government’s new direction
Northland Regional Council’s transport committee chairman, John Bain, has vowed to carry on fighting for major improvements to SH1, despite the Government shelving National’s plans for a four-lane motorway north to Whangarei and the uncertainty over the Warkworth to Wellsford section.
“Northland has been left out in the cold,” he said. “We still believe that for economic, safety and resilience reasons, we need to have that four-lane highway and bypass the Brynderwyns and Dome Valley.” He is now pinning his hopes on increased regional road funding to address safety issues through the Dome Valley and beyond, and says there is a solid case for Warkworth to Wellsford to still go ahead.
“It’s certainly doable and would be a boon to Northland people to make that road safer and more easily accessible,” he said. “I’m hell-bent to make sure that road is fit for purpose at the very least.”
Cr Bain said if the new motorway stopped at Warkworth, bypassing Hill Street would be a boon, but it would create a whole new set of problems. “The fact is, you’ll come off the bypass and go straight into an 80km/h stretch of highway through the Dome Valley,” he said.
National promises continued backing of RoNS
Rodney MP Mark Mitchell says if National is elected in two years time, the motorway project between Warkworth and Wellsford will go ahead. Mr Mitchell described the road as a critical piece of infrastructure. “Any delay in constructing it will cause uncertainty for property owners and the loss of a world-class main state highway for the people of Northland,” he says. “This road would provide increased safety for users and economic opportunities for the region.” Mr Mitchell says he has had a lot of feedback from people who will be directly affected by not having a new highway. “There is a high level of disappointment and anger around that decision.”
Motorway project timeline
The indicative route for the motorway linking Warkworth, Wellsford and Te Hana.
March 2009 – National government Transport Minister Steven Joyce announces plans to construct seven roads of national significance (RoNS), including the Puhoi to Te Hana motorway.
March 10, 2010 – NZTA awards a 15-month contract for investigation work to determine the alignment for the motorway. The Warkworth to Wellsford leg is expected to be mostly complete within the next 10 years.
August 20, 2017 – National government Transport Minister Simon Bridges announces plans for $10.5 billion to be invested into 10 RoNS projects, including an addition to the Warkworth to Wellsford motorway from Te Hana and Whangarei.
October 19, 2017 – A coalition government between Labour, New Zealand First and Green is officially announced. It ends a three-term spell in government for National.
December 11, 2017 – Transport Minister Phil Twyford says in Parliament, “The Puhoi to Wellsford project is underway and will bring significant benefits to Northland.”
December 20, 2017 – NZTA informs Mahurangi Matters that it is preparing to release the indicative alignment for the Warkworth to Wellsford project in the new year.
February 1, 2018 – NZTA informs Mahurangi Matters that it is working with the government as it develops a new Government Policy Statement on land transport. The government has signaled this is likely to include new priorities for transport investment throughout New Zealand, and will influence the timing and funding required for existing work programmes to proceed.
March 14, 2018 – Government Policy Statement on Land Transport released for submission.
April 2, 2018 – Jacinda Ardern makes public statements in relation to the GPS. “What you won’t see under this government is investment in a small number of dual-carriage highways, while local roads and safety, and other transport options suffer.” Transport Minister Phil Twyford announces that the 10 RoNS projects planned for by the National government will not go ahead. But will not confirm a definite position on the Warkworth to Wellsford leg.
May 2, 2018 – GPS submissions closed, release of final GPS expected by June 30.