The first stage of Tainui Group Holdings ambitious plan for a $3 billion inland port and commercial hub on its land at Ruakura in the Waikato 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 is to recommend to the Minister for the Environment 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 final decision on these recommendations will be the Minister's.
TGH, the commercial development arm of Waikato Tainui, applied last month to the EPA for a private plan change to enable the first stage of the 30-50 year project 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 EPA said a board of inquiry process would provide for a comprehensive assessment of the project ''within a streamlined process''.
A board of inuqiry would provide greater certainty for all parties as a decision is required within nine months.
The EPA has also advised the minister that the Crown could make a submission on the proposal to the board of inquiry, and that the minister could extend the nine month timeframe for a board to make a decision, although it could see no need for an extension of time.
TGH seeks to develop around 500 hectares of land, 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 116 hectares adjacent to Tainui's land.
Land use at Ruakura is mostly rural and lifestyle blocks, covering a total area of 822 ha - 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 28-30 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 current 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. When 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 transferred and moved by road and rail.