The much fraught Ruataniwha dam project is dead in the water with New Zealand’s highest court dismissing a key conservation land swap needed for the scheme to proceed.
In a 3-2 ruling released today [see attachment], the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeal in setting aside the decision of the Department of Conservation’s Director-General Lou Sanson, which revoked the conservation park status of 22 hectares needed for the RWSS to go ahead.
A press release issued by the Court says the majority of Judges agreed with the Court of Appeal that Sanson acted unlawfully in revoking conservation park status for the land on the basis of the test for exchange [under section 16A of the Conservation Act], which authorises exchange of stewardship land.
“They have affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeal that revocation under section 18(7) is permitted only where the conservation values in the subject land no longer warrant continued special protection,” the release reads.
“That was not the approach taken by the Director-General and so the revocation decision was rightly set aside by the Court of Appeal.
“The Judges in the majority have held also that the revocation decision of the Director-General was in error because it did not observe policies contained in the statutory planning instruments.”
Environmental champion Forest & Bird were the successful defendants in the court case with its chief executive Kevin Hague saying the ruling means New Zealand’s publicly owned Forest Parks and other conservation land are still safe from being disposed of for private development interests.
“This decision is wonderful news for Ruahine and all Forest Parks around the country,” he says.
“The Government went all the way to the Supreme Court to allow the downgrade and exchange of part of Ruahine Forest Park, which would have led to the destruction of that land.
“The Supreme Court has confirmed that our forest parks belong to the people of New Zealand and are protected by the Conservation Act.”
While today’s ruling should have heralded the end of a long two-year battle between the environmental lobby group, DoC and the Hawke’s Bay Regional Investment Company, Conservation Minister Maggie Barrie has signalled that the government will seek to change the law in a bid to overturn today’s ruling.
Hague says while Forest & Bird still hopes the government respects the Supreme Court’s decision, if Barry does attempt to change the law she will be met with the same determination from Forest & Bird as the Minister of Conservation’s illegal land-swap was.
Meanwhile, the regional council will await advice from its investment company, HBRIC Ltd before it decides its next step on the Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme.
Council Chairman Rex Graham says the council’s investment company is analysing the decision and the Council needs to await advice from it before it can decide what happens next.
He says the council committed to funding the scheme three years ago; however, a new long-term planning cycle is getting underway, along with a capital review, which will examine all the council’s investments.
Last year HBRIC sought to take the land under the Public Works Act if the Supreme Court made the decision it did today, a move blocked by the regional councillors.