Austrian countess fined for buying NZ farm without authority

An Austrian countess has been fined for breaching New Zealand's overseas investment rules when she bought a Wairarapa farm station.

Veronika Leeb-Goess-Saurau bought Hadleigh Station in 2018 as an investment in forestry, intending to convert the land to pine trees. She paid $13.4 million for the 1727-hectare property, which is regarded as a "sensitive asset". 

The Overseas Investment Office found the countess was in breach of overseas investment rules because she hadn't obtained the proper authority. 

Overseas buyers must get consent from the OIO before they can invest in sensitive land, significant business assets and fishing quota. This rule applies to Kiwi associates of overseas investors as well. 

RNZ reports the countess received a compliance letter from the OIO in November 2018 warning her that she must obtain consent before acquiring any sensitive assets. 

Countess Leeb-Goess-Saurau has been issued retrospective consent and fined $10,000 - a small amount to reflect that her breach is believed to have been unintentional.

The OIO also found Roger Dickie Ltd, which brokers forestry deals for both local and international investors, had breached its rules by failing to obtain consent. 

Roger Dickie himself told RNZ it was a minor breach of little consequence, and said it was "bloody nonsense" that the OIO requires permission to be sought from the outset of a sensitive asset sale. 

Hadleigh Station, a sheep and beef farm near Masterton, was previously owned by Lone Star Farms. It was sold to Roger Dickie Ltd in 2017, and the family who had been managing the farm was forced to leave. 

William Beetham, president of Federated Farmers, told Newshub in May that a growing number of farmers were worried about sheep and beef properties being sold into forestry. 

"A lot of rural communities and, I would say urban communities, are starting to get very concerned about the subsidies available for forestry, and what that might mean for the future of their communities," he said.

Government subsidies mean forestry buyers are now able to pay more than sheep and beef farmer for the same priced land, and Beetham believes overseas buyers are taking advantage by snapping up New Zealand land. 

He said some areas had been negatively impacted by foreign investment in forestry.

"We know that in other regions, large areas of forestation and monoculture of trees have meant that rural schools have closed down and rural communities have moved away and disappeared."