Challenge to land swap for Ruataniwha dam fails
A judge has rejected a challenge to a land swap that would allow the Ruataniwha dam to proceed.
The High Court on Friday released its decision between Forest and Bird and the Minister of Conservation and the Hawke's Bay Regional Investment Company.
Forest and Bird had claimed that a decision by the department to swap land in Hawke's Bay to pave the way for the proposed dam amounted to bartering with "irreplaceable" protected areas.
The society said the decision by DOC director-general Lou Sanson to swap the land was illegal and would set a precedent for all protected areas in New Zealand.
In order to proceed with the $300 million irrigation dam, DOC and the investment company (HBRIC) agreed to exchange 22 hectares of Ruahine Forest Park land for 145 ha of nearby farmland.
Before Justice Matthew Palmer, Forest and Bird counsels Isaac Hikaka and Sally Gepp argued the move to revoke the status of the protected area was inconsistent with the Conservation Act.
"New Zealand's protected areas are not up for barter. They are irreplaceable," they said.
DOC counsel said Forest and Bird did not challenge the merits of the conservation gain being achieved, but more the scope of discretion over revoking protected area status.
The addition of the exchange block to Ruahine Forest Park "augments, enhances and enlarges the value of the park," DOC argued.
In his decision Justice Palmer said the case "goes to the very heart" of the purpose of the Conservation Act 1987, and although he agreed with some of Forest and Bird's submissions on the law, he declined to uphold the challenges.
"While I have agreed with Forest and Bird that what is proposed may create an obligation to reserve marginal strips from teh sale or disposition of the Forest Park, such a disposition has not yet occurred so a challenge to that is premature," he said.
He did not award costs against Forest and Bird as they had "competently and responsibly advanced legitimate arguments in teh public interest," he said.
Gepp said the ramifications of the decision and any further decisions arising from it "need to be carefully considered".
"Given the significant implications of this decision for specially protected land throughout New Zealand, Forest & Bird is considering how it will respond, which may include appealing the decision to the Court of Appeal. We will need to consider our next steps very carefully," Gepp said.
HBRIC chief executive Andrew Newman welcomed the ruling, saying it was "another step in the process and brings everyone closer to a final decision on the scheme".
"This decision gives everyone further certainty, especially farmers who are considering signing up to take water from the scheme, and potential investors," he said.