Government may change law after court rules against DOC land-swap
The Government has signalled it is prepared to change the law to overturn a Supreme Court ruling that conservation land cannot be grabbed by developers.
In a 3-2 decision released on Thursday, the country's highest court ruled the Director-General of Conservation was not entitled to revoke the special conservation status of a section of Ruahine Forest Park land earmarked for a major irrigation scheme.
The decision is a blow for the proposed Ruataniwha dam – a major irrigation scheme planned for Central Hawke's Bay – but was also hailed by environmental groups for setting a wider precedent.
The Ruataniwha scheme involves damming a river in the foothills of the Ruahine ranges to create a 7km-long storage lake capable of irrigating about 25,000 hectares of farmland in the nearby Ruataniwha catchment.
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Thursday's Supreme Court ruling upholds an earlier Court of Appeal decision that the Department of Conservation does not have the authority to "revoke" the conservation status of 22ha of forest park land so it can be handed over to the scheme and flooded by the lake.
DOC had agreed to swap the land for 170ha of nearby farmland which is said was of greater conservation value.
Environmental advocacy group Forest & Bird, which mounted last year's successful Court of Appeal challenge, said the land-swap would have set a precedent enabling any forest park land to be grabbed by developers.
Conservation Minister Maggie Barry said the Government had long believed the law allowed DOC to make land-swaps if it ended up with land that had higher conservation values.
"The Supreme Court finding that the Director-General cannot consider that broader picture has far-reaching implications and we will now be working through the effects of that," Barry said.
"We will now look at changing the law to ensure we can continue to improve conservation outcomes by having the ability to make land swaps where the outcome would be a win for conservation."
The Ruataniwha dam project has been developed by Hawke's Bay Regional Council through its investment arm, Hawke's Bay Regional Investment Company (HBRIC).
The council has committed $80 million to the project, expected to cost about $330m, subject to a number of conditions including environmental safeguards being put in place and a corporate investor signing up to help fund the project.
HBRIC chief executive Blair O'Keeffe said the Supreme Court decision was "a setback for the scheme" and the company would take time to consider it.
He said the purpose of the project to improve both the environment and the regional economy.
"Solutions to both are still required so all decisions on next steps require very careful consideration."
The regional council chairman, Rex Graham, said the council needed to await advice from HBRIC before it decided what happens next.