Although speculation is rife over who may have purchased Onepū Park in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, there is a sense of relief that the new owner will allow continued public access.
Tenders closed last week on Knights’ forest, the 72-hectare property that is mostly planted in pine forest but also home to protected wetlands and extensive walking and mountain-biking tracks that have been open to the public since 2011.
At that time, an agreement was made between community groups that use the park and its owners, Norske Skog Tasman.
When the Norwegian pulp and paper company put the property on the market recently, after closing the paper mill in June, park users and volunteers were dismayed at the idea of losing access to the park.
Property Brokers rural agent Phillip Berry says a significant factor in the decision-making process on the part of the vendor is the continuation of public access to the site.
He was not able to disclose the identity of the purchaser except that it was a family trust.
“While they live outside the district, they have a strong family connection to the area. They see the property as a community asset and focal point and have indicated their intention to maintain the current public access arrangement into the future.”
Park founder Bill Clark, who had previously suggested the property would be a smart purchase for Whakatāne District Council or even the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, is happy that the park has been sold to someone who intends to keep it open to the public.
“There’s much intrigue and speculation around Onepū as to who that might be because it’s been said they’ve got family here. People wonder if it’s someone they know.”
He says he's not too disappointed that the park didn't sell to a council, as it would have been “a double-edged sword”.
“I thought it would have been a good opportunity for the council but at the end of the day, it’s business as usual.
“Since the park started it has had a very good relationship with a private owner. Once we’d established the ground rules there was almost no interference at all from Norske.
“There would have been certain security, going forward, if the district council, or even the regional council, had decided to purchase it, but it may have been encumbered with bureaucratic regimes, which may have destroyed or impacted on the volunteer culture of the place.”
Whakatāne Mountain Bike Club president Richard Hamer says he has been told that the new owner is very warm to the community and the club having continued use.
“That was a great relief actually hearing that,” says Richard.
“The next thing will be speaking with the person about formalising an agreement like we had with Norske. Just so that we can ensure that everyone is kept safe and we know what the parameters are for continuation.
“We’ve held back on doing any major new work but there’s some little things we have planned to make the place nicer and safer.”
-Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air