Image: Facebook
Image: Facebook

SocietyAugust 27, 2018

The bizarre true story of the gun club which invaded the Makarau Valley

Image: Facebook
Image: Facebook

Keep the Peace Makarau Valley says the controversial Auckland Shooting Club is filing resource consent applications that are incomplete and unrepresentative of the club’s real ambitions for expansion. 

A controversial Auckland gun club is pressing ahead with their plan to build Australasia’s ‘largest shooting facility’ in a sleepy rural valley – and the council is ‘screwing’ residents by taking the shooters at their word, a community group says.

Keep the Peace Makarau Valley spokesperson Chris Catchpole told The Spinoff his organisation believes that the Auckland Shooting Club is rushing through a resource consent application on erroneous grounds – one which totally omits the “private” gun range right next door, owned and operated by founding ASC member Raymond O’Brien.

The sites at 287 and 297 Tuhirangi Road together compromise around 110 hectares in the Makarau Valley, 60km north of Auckland’s CBD. Number 287 is owned by O’Brien and wife Victoria Pichler; 297 is owned by O’Brien alone. The Auckland Shooting Club leases a 38 hectare block at Number 287, on which the range is located. New Zealand Shooting Sports Centre Ltd, a company solely owned and directed by O’Brien and Pichler, is registered next door at 297.

Since Pichler and O’Brien took ownership of the properties, new internal roading linking the sites has been constructed, and New Zealand Shooting Sports Centre Ltd has commissioned substantial earthworks at both addresses. Yet despite this – as well as previously expressed council concerns club members would use the ranges at 297 ‘without resource consent’, photographic evidence of ASC members being ferried between the two properties on a competition day, and an ASC website promoting member access to the neighbouring property – Auckland Council has ruled the addresses be considered separate.

ASC-issued standing orders for 297 Tuhirangi Road.

The Spinoff is also in possession of Auckland Shooting Club-issued standing orders for a ‘Happy Valley Rifle Range’ at 297 Tuhirangi Road dated April, 2018. Locals report hearing gunfire from the area since around that time. “The applicants are members of the Club, but do not run and are not in charge of the Club,” Ian Dobson, Manager Resource Consents North West, Auckland Council, told The Spinoff.  

Victoria Pichler, Paula Bennett, ASC President Chris Gee and Raymond O’Brien. Photo: Facebook.

But media reports from the past two years variously refer to O’Brien and Pichler as owners, founders and spokespeople for the ASC. Pictures of the opening of the ASC show Pichler and O’Brien smiling alongside then deputy-prime minister Paula Bennett, who conducted the ceremony. New Zealand Shooting Sports Centre Ltd, the company they own and direct, appoints the president of the Auckland Shooting Club.

Club financial statements show that in the last year, ASC paid $163,537 in leasing fees for O’Brien and Pinchler’s property, exceeding total club revenue of $148,135. All of the club’s annual income and more was paid to either New Zealand Shooting Sports Centre Ltd or O’Brien and Pichler personally, as owners of the land. But in emails seen by The Spinoff, council principal planning specialist Dan Rodie says that “without conclusive evidence” to contradict his findings, Auckland Council has not pursued the need for further consents to be applied for Number 297 in relation to Number 287.

287 and 297 Tuhirangi Road.

The properties are seemingly constantly intertwined.

In November, 2017, Auckland Council issued an abatement notice on earthworks being conducted at 287. That same month, New Zealand Shooting Sports Centre Ltd commissioned earthworks at 297 Tuhirangi Rd. “We finally got council to issue an abatement on 287, and they moved next door to 297 and started building ranges there,” said Keep the Peace spokesperson Chris Catchpole.

Victoria Pichler and Raymond O’Brien, as well as Graham Everson and Everson Earthworks Limited, are under prosecution for alleged breaches of Unitary Plan rules in the construction of the rifle range at Number 297.

Number 287 Tuhirangi Road also remains under an abatement order, and the legitimacy of the Certificate of Compliance at the property is the subject of a case currently before the Court of Appeal.

“If 297 isn’t included, more neighbours aren’t affected, and that noise won’t be taken into consideration,” said Catchpole. “The ASC is arguing that Number 297 is only used for private shooting, but we have evidence of ASC members using those ranges commercially.”

“People drive to the ASC and when they want to shoot rifles and shotguns they go the adjoining property. We’ve photos of got ASC members in shirts shooting on 297. And still council say they won’t include it in resource consent.”

Club president Chris Gee confirmed members have been invited by O’Brien and Pichler to use the ranges at 297, but said there’s “more to it than that”.

The existence of the range at 297 Tuhirangi Road also worries residents concerned about environmental creep.

Two kilometres as the crow flies from the front gate of 297 Tuhirangi Road is the front gate of another, older Makarau Valley institution – the Dhamma Medini Vipassana Meditation Centre. A silent retreat built over 30 years on volunteer donations, the centre regularly hosts students with severe PTSD and other difficulties, who attend 10 day retreats amongst the serene native bush. 

Vipassana meditation is the method taught by the Buddha to come out of suffering. Students wake at four, and spend ten hours a day watching their breath and learning to observe the mind. The course is free and teachers receive no remuneration. Everything from the kitchen to the dim, warm meditation hall was built on donations.

The centre sits in a small valley, with sweeping lawns and gravel tracks to small waterfalls. There are birds in the area, and gurgling streams run down out of the treeline. When the wind is right, and there’s water in the air, mist pours down over the trees and covers the centre in dew. It’s an atmosphere conducive to deep thought.

“Shots can now be clearly heard within the mediation hall, and have been disturbing our students for over a year,” said trustee Kirsty McKay.

The centre has strongly opposed the existence of the club since it was mooted in 2016. At the time, Raymond O’Brien told community and council that distance would make gunfire all but inaudible. Once the range was in operation, residents of the Makarau Valley told The Spinoff otherwise.

“On a good day it’s like having a nailgun [in a] building next door,” Lesley Rountree, a resident of 20 years, told me last year. “On a bad day it’s very, very loud.”

Chris Catchpole, who once considered the Makarau Valley his forever home, called it a “disaster”, and “ridiculous”. ASC club president Chris Gee said he “wished everyone could just get along.”

“What is being done is perfectly legal. If you can’t shoot a gun in an area zoned for it, where can you?”

Earthworks at 287 Tuhirangi Road.

Local hapū Ngāti Rango are also concerned, with kaumatua William Kapea saying in an email that the Auckland Shooting Club are “carrying out an activity that contravenes Ngāti Rongo cultural values”.

“Hapū members have reacted accordingly and despite these protests, council still chooses to ignore its obligations,” he said. “Tuhirangi [maunga] is of significant cultural value to the uri o Ngāti Rongo and it would not be wise for Auckland Council to ignore that.”

Keep the Peace say they have been told to expect a decision on resource consent notification to be made in the next ten days, but questions remain over whether or not the council is following best practice. “The council is about to bend the rules in the favour of the Auckland Shooting Club and screw the community in the process,” said Catchpole. “They’re about to make a decision that facilities the shooting clubs expansion in spite of everything the community has been trying to achieve get a fair hearing.”

“We have provided conclusive evidence. They’ve created an illusion.”

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