Plan Change 13 heading back to High Court following two appeals

An aerial view of irrigation circles near Lake Benmore in the Mackenzie Basin.
JOHN BISSET/FAIRFAX NZ

An aerial view of irrigation circles near Lake Benmore in the Mackenzie Basin.

Two new High Court appeals against a controversial plan change has left the Mackenzie District Council "hamstrung", the district's mayor says.

The decade-long legal battle over Plan Change 13 (PC13), which has cost Mackenzie ratepayers more than $1.2 million, is once again bound for court.

Two appeals have been lodged by Federated Farmers and The Wolds Station against an Environment Court decision to confirm the plan.

PC13 restricts the capacity for farmers to intensify their land through irrigation, an issue sometimes known as "greening of the Basin". It also places limits on other farming methods and restricts where they can construct buildings.

It was opposed by nearly all of the district's farmers, who said it was overly restrictive and would make farming unviable.

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Federated Farmers national president William Rolleston referred questions to High Country Industry Group Committee South Canterbury spokesman Andrew Simpson.

Simpson said farmers wanted clarification on some of the points in the Environment Court's decision.

One of those points was about the use of maintenance fertiliser, which currently required resource consent.

"There's also a lot of technical stuff," he said.

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"If we get that clarification, the appeal may be withdrawn. It's a safety process for us."

A spokeswoman for The Wolds Station declined to comment when contacted on Thursday.

The Mackenzie District Council has been defending PC13 since 2007. It has been subject to 11 court decisions and cost the council more than $1.2 million.

Mayor Graham Smith said Mackenzie ratepayers were starting to lose patience with some of the "demands" from those opposed to the plan.

"It's very disappointing," he said.

"I've got some sympathy that the farmers haven't got what they wanted, but they really need to accept the court's decision and get on with farming the Mackenzie."

The PC13 saga had "dragged on and on", he said.

"We need closure on PC13 so we can move on and do things like rezoning some areas. While PC13 is still going on, we're hamstrung by a situation out of our hands."

Council planning and regulations manager Nathan Hole also said the appeals were "disappointing".

However, it would not impact the current situation, meaning the Environment Court's decision would stand until a High Court decision was reached.

"Council recognises that absolutely, Federated Farmers has the right to appeal," Hole said.

"We just have to let it run its course."

It was unclear how long the proceedings would take, but two past appeals to the High Court had each taken about a year to resolve, he said.

In his decision, released last month, Judge Jon Jackson confirmed the plan change with some amendments.

He largely sided with the ecology experts, who gave evidence arguing that ecological values were being lost at a rapid rate, particularly since 2011.

They said there were 83 threatened or at-risk plant species in the Basin that were threatened by development, which had accelerated in recent years.

"The accumulative actions of farmers throughout the Basin have . . . brought the Mackenzie Basin to a point where its landscape values have been modified and its values (and status) as an ONL [Outstanding Natural Landscape] is being threatened," Jackson wrote.

"We consider management by the council is overdue."

He said in some parts of the Basin there was a case for an immediate moratorium on further freeholding, a process largely carried out through the Crown's tenure review process.

The Environment Court decision had been welcomed by environmental groups, including the Environmental Defence Society (EDS).

EDS chief executive Gary Taylor said EDS was "very disappointed with Federated Farmers".

"While it has been litigating, the various loopholes in the planning regime have been exploited to the maximum.

He described the appeals as "a disaster".

"We have seen the tussock and other native grasslands destroyed and the unique landscape of the Intermontane Basin changed forever. It is an environmental tragedy.

"If ever there was a place in New Zealand where we should say no more dairying, this is it."

He said he could not comment on the merits of the appeals, but said the actions of Federated Farmers were contrary to the Mackenzie Country Agreement.

"Fortunately the new rules are not stayed by the High Court appeal, so landowners still need to obtain resource consents from the district council before intensifying or converting land.

"However we have become aware that some landowners may be ignoring the new rules and acting unlawfully. We rely on Mackenzie District Council to enforce its district plan."

The council had given every indication that it took its responsibilities very seriously, and it needed public support, he said.

"EDS will be joining these proceedings shortly and will vigorously defend the Environment Court's decision against Federated Farmers and press for an early hearing.

"We are seeking funding support for our case."

 - Stuff

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