A decision on one of the biggest environmental management plans Waikato’s agricultural industry is likely to see started with an interruption, followed by six hours of questions, a hefty debate and a major step towards an 80-year plan to clean up the Waikato River.
In the end, it was Paula Southgate’s casting vote that decided the outcome of Waikato Regional Council’s Draft Healthy Rivers/Wai Ora: He Rautaki Whakapaipai after a 7-7 councillors’ deadlock.
The plan now goes to public consultation. Notification of the 80-day submission period will come no later than October 28.
“It’s been a very difficult decision for me but to be true to myself, Hamiltonians and regional people who have supported me, I have to put water quality first,” Southgate said.
Taupiri farmer Steven Stark was disappointed too saying he’s about to lose value in his property.
“As a farmer in the lower Waikato I feel like I’ve been robbed of my equity for the doings in the upper catchment. I thought there was a better way forward,” Stark said.
“There’s lots of things we can do for the environment and everybody wants to do their bit but I don’t think attacking the equity in a farm is the way.”
Once the submission period is notified, the new rules on land use changes take effect in lieu of full adoption, restricting Stark’s ability to farm freely.
Councillor Jane Hennebry said it was the one sticking point – the split decision close but not close enough.
The fight now goes to the polls, she said.
“If we’re elected we’ll continue to be a strong united team and a voice for ratepayers,” Hennebry said.
Collaborative Stakeholders Group independent chairman Bill Wasley said the land use change had to be stringent and immediate. Leniency would undermine the plan.
“We needed a high bar that needed to be put in place immediately upon notification,” Wasley said.
Members of the CSG included the representatives from the multiple sectors – dairy, horticulture, rural advocacy, energy, environment, local government, tourism , forestry, Maori, water supply takes, rural professionals and sheep and beef.
The latter group held out from fully supporting the plan.
The meeting, at the Don Rowlands Centre, Lake Karapiro, was held in front of more than 100 members of the public – iwi, the farming community, environmentalists and politicians.
Cr Peter Buckley moved a motion to send the land use rules back to the Healthy Rivers Wai Ora committee for further tinkering.
Cr Kathy White seconded the new motion, saying she had major concerns over the land use change rules. The details are incomplete, she said.
“It’s ethically wrong without knowing all of the details,” White said.
Cr Alan Livingston put his faith in the 650 hours and more than two years work done by the CSG.
“Man up,” Livingston said. Make a decision.
Enough support couldn’t be rustled up. Councillors were deadlocked 7-7 on Buckley’s motion and Southgate refused to use her casting vote.
The motion was lost. Farmers began their walkout.
Councillors jostled for position for more than six hours leading to the final decision.
A warning of a legal challenge and a call for the chairwoman to be disqualified from voting because she has showed previous support were also discussed. Under legal advice, Southgate was not disqualified from proceedings nor were any of the councillors.
Trevor Simpson, spokesman for the cross-sector Primary Land Users Group (PLUG), supported council’s vision for the environment but was scathing of the blueprint.
On Monday, lawyers for the group, representing dairy, forestry, sheep and beef and vegetable growers, sent a letter to the regional council chief executive Vaughan Payne saying they are so concerned about the direction of the plan, they are considering High Court action for a judicial review should it go ahead.
“This plan is the biggest change to agriculture in the region, ever,” Simpson said. “It has the potential to affect every farm and agricultural business in the region significantly.”
Millions of dollars would be lost to the Waikato, he said. Jobs would be plundered and ratepayers across all sectors will foot the bill.
“The vision is acceptable but the strategy at this point is flawed. How can the council in its last days in office put its name to this confused, poorly presented plan that not many people know about?”
Waikato District Council mayor Allan Sanson sent a letter to the regional council expressing his concerns over potential impacts but he’s out on a limb with his Waikato Mayoral Forum colleagues who are in support of the plan.
The Minister for the Environment Nick Smith sent a letter calling for a balanced and cautious approach.
However, he said, “It is important not to lose sight of the important long-term goal to limit diffuse nutrients in a debate over the fairness of process.”
Legal adviser Jim Milne said council cannot afford to do nothing. It is bound by three Waikato River settlements acts of parliament, the Waikato River Authority vision and strategy with the Resource Management Act adding weight.
“It’s got statutory impositions regulated by Parliament.”
The plan change will include the following new rules: