The first stage of Tainui Group Holdings' plan for a $3 billion inland port and commercial hub on its Waikato land looks set to be declared a proposal of national significance and heard by an independent board of inquiry instead of the Hamilton City Council.
The Environmental Protection Authority will recommend to Environment Minister Amy Adams that the Rukaura plan be considered nationally important and that the first stage should be assessed by an independent board under the Resource Management Act.
The decision on these recommendations will be the ministers.
TGH, the commercial development arm of Waikato Tainui, applied last month to the authority for a private-plan change to enable the first stage of the 30 to 50-year project to go ahead after becoming concerned that city council red tape could derail or delay the proposal for many years.
If an independent board consents to the plan change, work could start in 2015 on the major logistics hub development, which incorporates housing.
The authority said a board of inquiry would provide for a comprehensive assessment of the project "within a streamlined process".
A board of inquiry would provide greater certainty for all parties as a decision was required within nine months.
The authority has advised Adams that the Crown could make a submission on the proposal to the board of inquiry, and that she could extend the nine-month time frame for a board to make a decision, although it could see no need for an extension of time.
TGH seeks to develop about 500 hectares received from the Crown as part of the Waikato Raupatu Claims Settlement Act 1995.
The proposal is in partnership with property developer Chedworth Properties, which owns 116ha adjacent to Tainui's land.
Land use at Ruakura is mostly rural and lifestyle blocks, covering a total area of 822ha, about twice the size of urban Morrinsville.
The land is equidistant to the ports of Auckland and Tauranga, and includes the Waikato Innovation Park and AgResearch, and adjoins Waikato University.
It is close to rail and will also be served by the proposed State Highway 1 stage of the new Waikato Expressway.
The first stage of TGH's master development proposal requires a plan change and involves mixed-use development of 389ha over 28 to 30 years.
The plan change request is a vital first step in unlocking rural-zoned land for the development.
The proposal cannot start without removal of the prohibited status over the Ruakura growth cell in the proposed Hamilton City District Plan. Until this happens, the necessary applications for resource consent cannot be lodged by TGH and the housing developer.
City councillors have rejected a TGH application to lift the prohibited status.
TGH chief executive Mike Pohio has said the company sidestepped the council because it feared implementation of the District Plan could be years off. The current District Plan took more than 10 years to implement.
Unveiling the proposal nearly five years ago, TGH said it wanted to start work on the development in 2015.
Stage one would involve development of an inland port in a logistics zone, and zones devoted to innovation, industry, knowledge, medium-density housing and a network of green space.
The cornerstone of the project is the inland port, where containers will be moved by road and rail.