Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee's emergency powers may be used to circumvent the courts, Christchurch property developers and the Green Party say.
On Thursday Brownlee ordered Environment Canterbury (ECan) to create a recovery plan that will override existing land use plans in greater Christchurch, Selwyn and Waimakariri.
The order was made under the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act and will work in much the same way the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority's (Cera) CBD blueprint overrides the Christchurch City Council's plan for the central city.
ECan has seven months to put together a plan of where housing and business development should go, consult the public, and file the document with the minister.
It is the second time Brownlee has used his emergency powers to finalise land-use decisions in Christchurch.
Last year, Brownlee used his emergency powers to insert new chapters into ECan's 1998 regional policy statement, the blueprint for greater Christchurch's residential growth.
The new plans were essentially what the UDS partners wanted. The UDS is an alliance created by the Christchurch councils to plan the unified development of greater Christchurch. Other members include the NZ Transport Agency and Ngai Tahu.
In July the High Court ruled Brownlee should not have used his powers that way and that he had made a "serious error" by preventing people from going to court to appeal boundary changes.
Green MP Eugenie Sage said she suspected the minister was using his powers to try to bypass the Environment Court, which was set to hear appeals on the subject.
His decision could potentially put more power in ECan's hands, she said.
The Greens' primary concern was that the quakes could be used by some to allow "haphazard, higgledy-piggledy" development that relied on private cars rather than public transport.
Creag McCulloch, of Heathcote, was one of the developers fighting in the Environment Court.
He said he was unsure what effect the plan would have on his potential subdivision near Heathcote until he spoke to his lawyer. However, he hoped the recovery plan would be the chance for a fresh start and expected the best land in the right places would get the nod for development.
"Looking at this with an objective mind, I would say this is a good idea," he said.
But he wondered whether it was just a back door for ECan to get the development it wants in the areas it wants.
He pointed out ECan had asked Brownlee to use his emergency powers to tell them to develop a land-use recovery plan.
"The other way of looking at it is this gets ECan - who were having trouble in the Environment Court - off the hook," McCulloch said.
Environment Court Judge Jon Jackson has said he was "very troubled" by ECan's actions in the case before him.
Jackson feared the recovery plan process would be less truly independent because ECan or the minister would be able to choose who would hear public submissions on the plan.
Developer Richard Peebles said he wanted to build homes on non-liquefiable farmland less than a kilometre from Merivale, but the councils appeared set against it.
"It's just extraordinary that the local bodies and the minister don't take into account that the actions they've taken are considered illegal and prejudicial to private property owners."
It had been more than two years since the first quake and but for the councils' delays, the Environment Court hearing could have already taken place, he said.
"Imagine the cost of this recovery plan. They could have had their certainty for massively less cost."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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