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Mystery company buys Pepin Island, returning it to Kiwi ownership after 26 years

After 26 years in foreign hands and three years on the market, a private island near Nelson worth millions of dollars has returned to New Zealand ownership. 

Pepin Island. Source: istock.com

The 518-hectare Pepin Island in Nelson’s Cable Bay has been sold to a private New Zealand company. It was first listed in August 2018 with an asking price of $16 million. That dropped to $13.5 million in March this year. 

New Zealand Sotheby's International Realty agent Ian Keightley said the buyer wanted to keep their identity and the price they bought the island for confidential. 

Keightley wouldn't be drawn on details about the nature or size of the company.

He said there was “a lot of interest” in the property from locals and expats, as well as non-New Zealanders from around the world. 

“Covid, of course, generated a lot more interest overseas as people wanted a place to escape to,” he said.

“It’s very unique. It’s a large parcel of land, and on parts of it you can’t even get cellphone reception which is really great. 

“You can go ‘glamping’, I’d call it … sitting there, the only lights you’d see are the ships at sea. It’s so close to Nelson City, yet you can be totally remote.” 

The freehold property’s vendor is Olivia Cayetana Hallman, who inherited the island in 2012 after the death of her mother Viola von Hohenzollern, a German businessperson. 

Hohenzollern bought the property for $2 million in 1995 and managed the island as a working sheep farm. There was a run-in with the Overseas Investment Office over the sale conditions, which was later resolved. Now, about 1900 sheep and 100 cattle live on the island.

Pepin Island also includes a seven-bedroom farmhouse, three cottages and three chalets, totalling 17 bedrooms for guests.

Alongside farm manager Andrew Newton, her work restoring native bush and controlling pests earned her a regional environment award. Before, the land was overgrazed and was prone to erosion. 

Keightley said the new owners planned to keep the working farm running, “maybe expand, a little bit, the small tourist business there”, and continue reforestation work on the island. 

Its coastline is a popular destination for kayaking and fishing. While the legal land boundary of the property extends down to the edge of the water on the island, previous owners had allowed people access to the coast.

Keightley said the new owners wanted to continue the status quo for public access to the island. This could also include a once-yearly open day, which attracted thousands to the farm. 

The idea of bringing the land back into public ownership had also been considered through the years, including by Nelson City Council. 

Keightley said there hadn’t been recent offers from the council. 

Nelson Mayor Rachel Reese, who wasn’t available for an interview, said in a statement it wasn’t “financially viable” for the council to buy, maintain and develop the property “given the extensive landholdings we already have in conservation and landscape reserves”. 

“It’s heartening that the new owners have expressed a desire to explore the establishment of strategic environmental areas across the island,” she said.

Reese said she looked forward to meeting the new owners. 

“We remain open to exploring the possibility of partnership opportunities and increasing the connections between Pepin Island and the community.”

A suggestion that the land be bought back by Ngāti Tama had also been floated for a few years, but the idea wasn’t formally discussed by the iwi.

However, at the time, Ngāti Tama Trust had considered an option for the Crown to purchase the land and return it to iwi through a settlement. The land was captured by Ngāti Tama in the 1820s, but they had lost it in the 1880s when it was turned into a farm.

In a statement today, Ngāti Tama Trust general manager Jaqui Ngawaka told 1 NEWS the "proper outcome" still would have been for the Crown to purchase the land and return it to the iwi.

She said she hoped the new owners would appreciate and honour the cultural and historical significance of Maheipuku (Pepin Island) for local whānau Māori.