Group's appeal made huge impact, says QC

An environmental group's appeal against salmon farming expansion in the Marlborough Sounds made a huge impact on resource management law, says the lawyer who took the group's case to the High and Supreme courts.

Dr Matthew Palmer, QC, acknowledged that Sustain Our Sounds did not get what it wanted, with New Zealand King Salmon going ahead with four farms. However, their case did help stop one farm and significantly change interpretation of the Resource Management Act (RMA), he said at the group's annual general meeting in Havelock on Thursday.

Palmer's father, former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, was an architect of that act and had been arguing against National Party proposals to water it down.

"The judgment was clever in that it reformed the law without upsetting the apple-cart of salmon [farming] and causing a knee-jerk political reaction," Palmer said.

Three farms were going ahead but under restrictive consent conditions which he was sure Sustain Our Sounds would monitor carefully.

All five Supreme Court judges rejected Sustain Our Sounds' argument that an Environmental Protection Authority decision to grant five of the nine farms applied for was not legal, mostly on water quality grounds. However, the court overturned consent for the Papatua farm in Port Gore, accepting the Environmental Defence Society's separate appeal that the area was an outstanding natural landscape so legally protected.

"The SOS argument was crucial to that happening," Palmer said.

Judges accepted the society's case that environmental bottom lines described in the RMA were not open to interpretation.

The decision affirmed the power of words, he said.

The best way of increasing environmental protection was to use the right words in documents such as the regional policy statement and district plans being updated by the Marlborough District Council, he said.

"If the words say you should avoid a negative effect on water quality that is a bottom line."

Lawyers representing big corporates would suggest words like "appropriate" and "if the circumstances require" to water down documents.

Pete Beech, of Guardians of the Sounds, which also opposed salmon farming expansion, said the council needed people that understood English rather than marine biology.

Palmer said he expected further debate after he was told three aquaculture areas allocated to iwi by the Government were alongside areas of outstanding natural landscape, including Papatua.

Decision-makers must pay attention not only to words in the Coastal Policy Statement about avoiding development but must also consider Treaty of Waitangi implications.

The Environmental Protection Authority board of inquiry sat for nine weeks in 2012, eventually approving four farms. That decision was appealed first to the High Court and then the Supreme Court, which heard the case in November last year.